Let’s take two quotes, mash their ideas together, and see what we get:
“Perpetual devotion to what a man calls his business, is only to be sustained by perpetual neglect of many other things.” — Robert Louis Stevenson
“If I were to let my life be taken over by what is urgent, I might very well never get around to what is essential.” — Henri Nouwen
I’ve been working from home and working for myself for over 4 years. One of the most empowering lessons I have learned over these past 4 years has been regarding my own limitations. Not merely my limitations of time, but also of energy.
In any given day I usually have 3 hours of good writing time in me. A couple hours of reading. Hopefully an hour or two of researching, thinking, or decision making. And maybe an hour of admin and other busywork.
If I push my day to include more than that, the returns on that extra energy is very little. Though the workaholic in me wants to squeeze in a few more tasks, there is a point when the responsible and productive thing for me to do is leave my office and stop working altogether.
Honestly, at times it can be difficult to let myself quit while I’m ahead for the day and go upstairs to be with my family, or go run errands, or just lie down and stare at the ceiling while I listen to what is going on in my imagination.
Albert Einstein once said: “Although I have a regular work schedule, I take time to go for long walks on the beach so that I can listen to what is going on inside my head. If my work isn’t going well, I lie down in the middle of a workday and gaze at the ceiling while I listen and visualize what goes on in my imagination.”
Over my years of working from home, I feel that too much focus on the “act of productivity” is to miss the forest for the trees.
Being “efficient” is not what’s ultimately important. I want to do my best creative work and I want to have thriving relationships. Meaningful productivity means showing up to do the important work on a regular basis.
Time management, task management, focus, diligence — these can help keep me on track, but they are not the end goal in and of themselves. I want to focus first on the important work itself.
Have I written today? Have I daydreamed? Have I been contemplative? Have I had an inspiring and encouraging conversation? Have I helped somebody? These activities are far more important than the checkmarks I make on my to-do list.
When you work for yourself, there is an oceanic undercurrent that pulls you into the details of your job. The thousand responsibilities of administration and communication and infrastructure. These are important, to be sure, because without them your business would cease to be. But (at least in my case) these are the support structures at best. The foundation of my business is not the ancillary administration; it is the muse.
“You can do anything, but not everything.” — David Allen
I am in the fortunate position that I don’t have to deal with email to do my job. In fact, the inverse that is closer to the truth: the less time I spend doing email the better I can do my job.
There are a few types of emails that I always pay attention to, and a handful of people whom I try to always correspond with in a timely manner. But I have rules and flags set up for those so that they are always sure to get my attention in my inbox.
For the rest of my emails, chances are I won’t ever reply to them. The reason I’m such a poor email correspondent to most people is that I just choose not to spend much time in email. Instead, I choose to spend my time doing other things such as writing, reading, managing the the administrative and financial logistics that accompany working for yourself, and spending as much time with my family as possible.
I could easily spend 3-4 hours every day reading to and replying to the messages in my inbox. But it’s not just the time and correspondence aspects of email that I chose to say no to — I’m also preemptively avoiding the decision-making and judgment-making requests that incoming emails ask of me.
Many of the emails I get are requests for my time, in one way or another. Either a request for an interview, an app review, to be a beta tester, etc. I would love to give my time and attention to these things if I could — I know I’m missing some great opportunities and relationships. But that’s just the way I’m letting it be — it’s an unfortunate consequence of my choice to be “poor” at email.
But if I were focus on all the incoming emails, and pursue all the opportunities that those messages presented, then I’d have no time, energy, or focus left for what is my most important work.
My friend Chris Bowler wrote about this. Saying: “Can we all agree to just let go? To stop caring that we might miss something big, something important? Reality is, we are all missing something important in front of us every day, while we carefully scan our feeds, missing the suffering, the joy, the simple state of being all around us. Our families and friends, our neighbours, our complete strangers.”
If I said yes to all the requests and opportunities and potential new relationships coming to my inbox then I’d have another full-time job, and I wouldn’t be able to write anymore.
My approach to email is not unlike the approach with one of the co-founders of Google has. David Shin, a former Google employee, shared this story:
When I worked at Google in 2006/2007, Larry and Sergey held a Q&A session, and this exact question was asked of them. One of them answered (I don’t remember which) with the following humorous response (paraphrased):*
”When I open up my email, I start at the top and work my way down, and go as far as I feel like. Anything I don’t get to will never be read. Some people end up amazed that they get an email response from a founder of Google in just 5 minutes. Others simply get what they expected (no reply).”*
I spend about 20-30 minutes a day in my email, and whatever I get to I get to. And whatever I don’t, unfortunately, goes unanswered. Because for me, Inbox Zero is actually all about the outbox. Inbox Zero means I choose to focus my time, energy, and attention on creating something worthwhile instead of feeding some unhealthy addiction to constantly check my inboxes. It means I care more about this moment than I do about my narcissistic tendencies of knowing who’s talking to me on Twitter. It means I care more about doing my best creative work than about keeping up with the real-time web and being instantly accessible via email.
By “pre-deciding” that the majority of requests for my time and attention over email just go unanswered, it gives me a fighting chance at doing my best creative work every day. Not only does it give me more time to focus on that which is important, but it gives me more creative energy to do my best work during that time.
In The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann, there’s this great line: “Order and simplification are the first steps toward the mastery of a subject…”
Mann’s line carries the same truth as the earlier quote by Robert Louis Stevenson. Our devotion to a subject can only be sustained by the neglect of many others. Our devotion to that which is important can only be sustained by the neglect of that which is non-essential.
Your story doesn’t have to be about email. I bet you a cup of coffee there is something you can decide to be poor at so you can be better at something else.
Finding something we want to do is the easy part. Now we must decide what we will neglect, and then we have to grow comfortable with being in that state of “perpetual neglect”. Something not easily done in a culture that tells us we can and should have it all and do it all.
But what happens when we try to do it all? In his book, Essentialism, Greg McKeown has an excellent diagram comparing the difference between our efforts when we have many pursuits versus focusing in on just one thing.
When we are spending a little bit of time on a million different projects, areas of responsibilities, tasks, and activities, then we make very little progress on any of them. And our efforts are stretched thin. However, if we focus our energy on only the most important things — that which is essential — then we make meaningful progress. Not to mention, it just feels more rewarding to focus on one important thing and do it with excellence.
When we take a moment to consider what our most important work is, we tend to think mostly about what we want to accomplish and do and be.
But why not also think about what we will not do? What tasks and pursuits will we give up or entrust to others? What areas of our time, energy, and attention will we simplify in order to create the space and the margin to do what we want?
We can do anything we want, but we can’t do everything. Which means that for every “yes” there are 1,000 “no”s.
P.S. I’m building a guided, online course about doing our best creative work and living a focused life. If you’d like to be notified when it comes out, sign up for here.
You’ll get my weekly emails regarding creativity, focus, and risk. And, you’ll get my 40-page PDF, The Procrastinator’s Guide to Progress, for free.
It was February of 2011 when I announced I was quitting my job and would be going full-time with shawnblanc.net. At the time I’d been writing here for just shy of four years.
Now, it has been another four. As I sit here this morning, writing these words, my heart is filled with gratitude. If you’ll permit me, I’d like to pull back the curtain and share from my heart this morning.
Looking back at the launch of my membership, in some ways, it seems like I did it all wrong. I “launched a product” four years ago without an email list, without any forewarning, and I probably totally undersold my value and left money on the table.
Literally all I did was publish a blog post telling everyone I was quitting my job and asked them to pitch in $3/month to support me. Oh, and I made a super dorky video using the iSight Camera on my MacBook Pro.
By today’s standards, there’s no way that should have worked.
But it did. By golly, it actually did work.
I’m sure I could have done things better. But at the same time, maybe not. There are a few reasons I think it did work, and if I take out any one of those dynamics who knows but the whole thing might have failed.
For one, I’d already been writing my site consistently for almost 4 years. This is something you, as a maker and an artist, can’t get away from. A maker makes. And I’d proved myself — both to you, the reader, and also to my own self — that I was in it for the long run. It wasn’t about an end goal — it was about the journey. And it still is. I’m not looking for an exit, I’m looking for a lifestyle and a community.
The consistency I had built up was an invaluable foundation upon which I was able to ask people to support my work. The whole pitch of the membership drive was along the lines of: “if you like the writing I’ve been doing here already, then pitch in a few bucks per month and I’ll be able to keep writing and write more frequently.”
If I hadn’t already been writing consistently for years, then there’s no way I could have asked people for their support.
My site archives served as the portfolio. My consistency was my résumé. And my new employer, the readers, decided to hire me.
But consistency is the obvious part, right. We all know that, part, right? We know we’ve got to show up every day if we want to build an audience or whatever. But there is more to it than that.
If you’re an artist and you are showing up every day as a means to an end, it will blow up in your face.
You get back what you give out. You reap what you sow.
So yes, consistency is the foundation. But it’s not the solution in and of itself.
There are a thousand million other websites out there, all publishing something every day. But there is one thing that separates them from you. That one thing is you. YOU!
Once you show up, it’s time to be honest. To bleed. To have fun. Roll your sleeves up and put your hands in the dirt. Smile. Laugh. Cry. Be genuine.
For eight years now I’ve been writing for shawnblanc.net, and I still get nervous every time I’m about to hit publish. At first, I thought the fear was just my novice-ness showing through. I assumed that once I got more experience under my belt, I’d be less afraid to publish. But I know now that’s not the case.
That edge of fear is what keeps me on track. If I’m afraid, then chances are I’m publishing something worthwhile. If I’m working on a project and constantly asking myself if it’s even going to work, then it means I’m probably making something of value.
If I pause for a moment before hitting “publish”, then it means there is probably someone who will find value in what I’ve just written. And so I hope to never get comfortable and never stop taking risks. From the small, daily risks of publishing an article, to the big crazy risks of starting a new website, trusting my team, writing a book, or creating a massive online course that I hope will literally change people’s lives.
* * *
Let me wrap this up by saying two things.
To the fellow makers, writers, podcasters, designers, and artists, out there: Thank you for making what you make. Keep showing up. And, most of all, keep being genuine. Keep dancing with that fear.
And to you, dear readers: A million, billion thanks. From the bottom of my heart. Thank you for your support over these years. I’m having more fun writing now than I ever have. It’s hard as hell, but that’s the point. In some ways I feel like we’re just getting started.
- April 1, 2011 was a Friday. I took a 3 day weekend to give myself some breathing room after quitting my job the day before, and didn’t publish my first article as a full-time, indie blogger until April 4, 2011. Details.↵
Below is a transcript from today’s episode of my podcast, The Weekly Briefly. You can listen to the episode here.
* * *
On my weekly newsletter, The Fight Spot, I ask people what their biggest challenge is related to focus and doing their best creative work.
One very common issue is the issue of having more ideas than time. People have so many interesting, exciting, or important projects they are working on that they don’t know where to start. They feel overwhelmed by options. They have too much to do. And so one very common question is “How do I get it all done?”
Last summer, I was in San Francisco for WWDC, and I was talking about this issue with a friend. He’s an iPhone app developer and he literally has dozens of apps and web services out there. I ask him how he juggles his focus and priorities.
For me, at times I feel stretched thin with “just” my 3 websites and podcast. I know that I do my best work when I am head down and focused on just one project and it’s all I think about until I’m done.
But sometimes that’s not an option (or is it?).
My friend said that to have multiple projects you have to be okay with letting one or more of them be neglected for a time while you work on the others. And, in his experience, coming back to an app and working hard to ship a big update, he often wouldn’t even see a big spike in new sales. So the update wasn’t even worth it all that much in terms of the short term, only.
* * *
Let me start by saying that I don’t know the answer, here. There isn’t one universal rule here. You have to trust your gut and know your situation to make the call if you’re going to keep juggling many projects or if you’re going to let some go to focus on one.
That said, for those of us who have several projects and ideas all going at the same time, how do we juggle them?
Here are some suggestions:
Identify your roles and goals: you need balance in your life, so step back and identify your roles (parent, boss, employee, self-improver, etc.) And make sure that you’re not spending the vast majority of your time in just one of those roles.
Reduce the scope: consider scaling back what “1.0” looks like, so it’s something that is attainable. And consider lowering your bar of perfectionism — my friend Sean McCabe says we ought to aim for 90% complete (instead of 99%).
Reduce your project load: do you have to be doing all the projects right now? Can one or more of them be put on pause? Instead of doing three projects all simultaneously, can you do one at a time? Even on a week-to-week basis?
Get help: consider delegating and/or hiring others to help you.
Learn to say no to your own ideas: In The Focus Course, there is a day dedicated to ideation and strengthening our creative imagination. One of the benefits to this exercise is that you learn you have more ideas than time, and you don’t have to be a slave to your good ideas. We all will have ideas that we want to do, but the existence of them doesn’t mean we are now obligated to flesh them out.
Spend less time on counterfeit rest: things like television, video games, social media, mindless internet surfing — these things can be time sinks. Moreover, they don’t leave us feeling refreshed, motivated, or recharged. You most definitely need breaks and time to rest, but there are some great ways to do it other than zoning out.
Plan ahead: your productive tomorrow starts today. What is one thing you can do now that will improve life for your future self? Go to bed on time, set out your clothes for tomorrow, write down the first thing you’re going to do when you sit down to work in the morning, etc. This will give you a head start on your projects.
“Dost thou love life? Then do not squander time, for that’s the stuff life’s made of.”
– Benjamin Franklin
* * *
Protip: There are four ways to help yourself avoid squandering time:
- Plan ahead (make a schedule)
- Awareness of how you tend to spend your time
- Don’t be dumb
Regarding (1): There are a lot of resources available to help you improve how you spend your time. Heck, I’m building an entire course to help you be more focused and do more meaningful work (and then some).
Regarding (4): well, that’s up to you.
Regarding (2) and (3): There’s an online service called Rescue Time that I think is pretty awesome.
* * *
In the past 8 weeks, I’ve logged more than 400 hours of my time using Rescue Time. They say hindsight is 20/20, and the Rescue Time service is a way to see how you’re actually spending your time. Its insight and data can help you make better decisions about what you do with your day.
In a nut, Rescue Time is an online service that tracks and categorizes how you spend your time. It’s ideal for folks who spend most of their time working from a computer.
You start by signing up on their website. Then you download and install the app to your Mac (they’ve a PC version as well), and then you register the app with your online account.
Once your computer is connected, you create your profile. Rescue Time asks you what your top three most distracting activities are and what your top three most productive activities are.
I put (a) Social Networking, (b) News & Opinion, and (c) Shopping as my top three most distracting activities.
Then I put (a) Reference & Learning, (b) Design & Composition, and (c) Business as my top three most productive activities.
I also asked Rescue Time to prompt me for time spent away from my computer. This way, when I return to my Mac after taking a lunch break, reading break, or going for a run, the Rescue Time app will prompt me to ask what I was doing while I was away.
Once your Rescue Time profile is created, you’ll have some default preferences set up for you. The two goals Rescue time starts you with are:
- More than 2 hours spent daily on your first-listed, most productive activity.
- Less than 2 hours spent on all of your most-distracting activities combined.
I changed my first goal to be 2 hours spent on writing each day. I feel like all the things which fall into my top 3 categories would easily be accomplished in 2 hours and then some. I wanted to try and have 2 hours focused just on writing itself. This is, for me, my most important thing every day.
Unfortunately, after my first week, I didn’t hit my goal. [Shakes fist in the air.] But it turns out Rescue Time was set to average my goal of 2 hours of writing across a 24/7 schedule. Since I take Saturday and Sunday off, that was messing with my average. So I adjusted the goal to be 2 hours/day between Monday-Friday 6am-8pm. And boom.
For the first week I tried to log all of my offline time including sleep and personal time in the mornings before sitting down at my desk. That proved to be tedious. So I just stopped logging sleeping hours. I’m not going to try and let Rescue Time keep tabs on all 168 hours of my week, just the ones when I’m at the computer.
It’s been 8 weeks now, and twice I’ve gone in to my Rescue Time dashboard to fine tune the categories and productivity score (between 1-5) of my activities. For example, I do a lot of basic note taking and writing in Simplenote (I’m doing my initial notes for this Rescue Time review right now, in Simplenote). But Rescue Time defaulted to seeing Simplenote as being a Business-related activity, not a writing-related one. Well, I want Simplenote to count toward my 2 hour goal of writing.
This is easily changed when viewing the activity page for Simplenote: I just Edited it and changed what activity category it should fall under. I also changed its level of productivity (on a scale of 1-5 from very distracting to very productive).
The productivity level of each activity contributes to the overall “productivity score” that you receive at the end of the week. Right now for the 8 weeks I’ve been using Rescue Time, my overall productivity score is 79. Which I think is pretty good.
I know there is some margin of error in there. For example, not all the time I spend on Twitter is distracting. But sometimes it is. I suppose that to keep a clear distinction between “productive Twitter” and “distracting Twitter” I could set the twitter.com website as distracting and Tweetbot as productive. But that’s easier said than done when it comes to keeping yourself on track. So I just let Twitter be distracting and try not to be too productive on there lest I feel cheated.
For the paid, Pro level of Rescue Time you can choose to have certain websites blocked. This is called “Get Focused”.
So far as I can tell, when you “Get Focused” it only blocks websites. Which means you can still launch certain apps. So, for instance, twitter.com would be blocked but Tweetbot still works.
(Matt Gemmell has an article about this, and shares about some certain apps that run on your computer and full-on block websites and APIs and apps and more.)
The slight conundrum about Rescue Time’s Get Focused tab is that things like checking Twitter and email are a mixed bag. I often use Twitter for productive work, but also it can be a time sink. So it’s not this one-to-one direct ratio where Twitter equals unproductive every time. But it can be unproductive. And I think having at least a little bit of understanding about how much time I tend to spend on Twitter can be helpful to keep myself on track.
When you’ve met a goal you can get an alert, or when you’ve spent too much time on “distracting” activities, you can get an alert. I’ve gotten pretty good at hitting my daily goal of writing for 2 hours, so I don’t get an alert for that. But I get an alert if I spend more than one hour on distracting activities.
Also, Rescue time works with Zapier. I haven’t figured out just how I’m going to exploit this, but it’s awesome nonetheless. You could use it to log your WordPress blog posts, MailChimp email campaigns sent, and who knows what else.
As I mentioned earlier, Rescue Time knows when I’m away from my computer via inactivity. Which is awesome and kind-of annoying. When I come back to my Mac, Rescue Time prompts me to categorize the activity I was doing while away.
I can define and set these categories so that my time away options suit my most common time away activities. And I can give a description detail about the time away if I want.
Some other apps I’ve used for time tracking like this don’t do a great job at watching when I’m away. And so they’ll say that I spent 5 hours one day in OmniFocus b/c I left that as the frontmost app when walking away from my computer or something like that.
Since I try to spend a good amount of my time reading and working away from my Mac, I like that I can still log that time and have it count.
One thing I don’t like about Rescue Time is how bent it is on office work as the center of everything. I had to go to the Miscellaneous category and create two new sub-categories: one for “Family” and another for “Personal”. And then I had to set those as “Productive” times. Oy.
I’m not sure if Rescue Time assumes I treat family time as non-productive (as if time with my family means time when I’m not doing anything of value) or if they just assume that I don’t take breaks in my day to be with my family.
But for me, I often take breaks in the afternoon and into the evening to be with my kids. (It’s a huge reason why I quit my job 4 years ago to work from home.) But then I may come back to my computer in the evening to wrap up some tasks or work on photos or something. Rescue Time’s default was to log that Family time as uncategorized and neutral. But no way — it’s just as much a valid use of my time as writing is.
So, that said, my biggest gripe against Rescue Time is its bias toward defining productive as “working”. But with a little bit of customizing my reports and categories, I’ve been able to change the definition of Productivity to something more along the lines of “doing what’s important”. (Now that’s what I call meaningful productivity.)
Rescue Time and the Small Wins
And this ties in with something I wrote about a while ago regarding celebrating progress.
Acknowledging our daily progress is a way to strengthen our inner work life. In our efforts to create meaningful work, it can be easy to get lost in the mundaneness of our day-to-day.
And so, one way we can thrive in the midst of the daily chaos is to recognize the few things we did today that made progress on meaningful work or that strengthened an important area of our lives.
When we take the time to celebrate our small victories — to celebrate progress — then we are re-wiring our brain (our thought process) to seek out the reward found in doing meaningful work instead of the quick-fix high we get from putting out meaningless fires and filling our time with busywork.
I’m an advocate of journaling my daily progress as a way to give myself a daily boost of confidence and motivation. Which then impacts my behavior to keep on doing the important work, which leads to better and better results and increased performance.
Rescue Time plays a role here as well. It’s a 3rd-party telling me that I met my daily goals and had a productive day / week. Rescue Time’s report is mostly just the amalgamation of time spent in productive and very productive categories. But since I’ve defined those categories and their level of “productivity” for me, I trust the reports and use them to boost my own motivation.
Having a 3rd-party service track your time may sound crazy to you. But I think it’s worth it, if even for a short season. It’s not always easy to view our habits, workflows, and calendars objectively. But if we can learn about how we spend our time and use that knowledge to rescue even just 15 or 30 minutes a day, wow! That time adds up fast.
As I was getting the links for this article put together, I discovered Rescue Plan has an affiliate program. If you want to sign up for the Pro account, use this link and I get a small kickback. Their free plan is great, too. And a good way to test the waters. Thanks!
On a recent edition of The Fight Spot, I wrote about one of the aspects of doing our best creative work: stepping out of the echo chamber.
The dictionary definition of echo chamber is “an enclosed space for producing reverberation of sound.”
An enclosed place where the majority of what you hear is unoriginal (a multi-dimensional repeating of what was once said) and whatever you say is echoed back to you.
Echo Chamber is also a metaphor. Here’s the Wikipedia definition: In media, an echo chamber is a situation in which information, ideas, or beliefs are amplified or reinforced by transmission and repetition inside an “enclosed” system, where different or competing views are censored or disallowed.
By nature, each of us tend to sit in the center of our own echo chamber.
When we get too absorbed in the platform, the new, and the feedback, then the echo chamber becomes the place where we compare ourselves by ourselves. It becomes noisy. Inspiration runs dry. Our creativity gets stifled. We grow cynical and sarcastic. And it serves as an ever-present distraction and pacifier from doing work that matters.
When we look to the echo chamber as our sole source of inspiration, it’s like looking to a bag of chips for our sole source of nourishment. The constant barrage of our timelines and inboxes — those “little updates” — are like snacks and junk food. They will fill you up but they are not a significant form of nourishment.
How can you become a voice — how can you provide something original, unique, and valuable — when all your inputs are unoriginal echoes?
The inspiration and motivation needed for your best creative work will not come from the echo chamber.
Limit your feeds and inboxes. Subscribe only to the people and sources of input that enrich your life and give you the motivation and tools to do your best creative work.
Seek out inspiration from offline sources. Such as books, nature, conferences, silence, prayer and meditation, relationships, journaling, building your own projects, etc.
Create something every day. Write in your journal, come up with 10 ideas, take a photograph, draw a sketch, etc.
Curate what you share. Be a source of motivation, encouragement, and equipping to those who follow you. Put thought into the work you publish. Even your tweets and Facebook updates can be nuggets that motivate, equip, and encourage.
A Challenge to You
At some point this week, do one of these things:
Unsubscribe from one RSS feed or email newsletter, or unfollow one person on Twitter or Facebook.
(You should feel free to unsubscribe from my site / newsletter / unfollow me on Twitter — if what I am writing isn’t helpful to you at this time, or isn’t providing you with the motivation and tools to do your best creative work, then cut it out. You only have so much time, and the last thing I want is to be a non-helpful source of input in your day.)
- Take 15 minutes to find inspiration from an offline source. Read a chapter from a favorite book, put your phone in another room and just sit in silence, take a walk outside, etc.
Create something. Write a journal entry, take a photograph, draw something, come up with 10 ideas for little ways you can show your friends and family how much you love them (you don’t even have to act on the 10 ideas you come up with).
Do something to encourage or equip someone else.
Before you move on from this article, decide which one of the above challenges you’re going to do and make a time in your week for when you’re going to do it.
Is the stay-at-home dad who spends most of his day changing diapers and cleaning up messes any less productive than his wife who is the CEO of a charity organization?
Productivity tends to be defined by how well we use our task management systems, how organized our calendar app is, how fast we can blaze through a pile of emails, and how fluidly we flow from one meeting to the next. But those metrics can skew toward rewarding effective busywork while giving little dignity to meaningful work.
What if we started defining productivity differently?
Less focus on our party trick of balancing many plates at once.
More focus on consistently giving our time and attention to the things which are most important.
When Ray Bradbury was first staring out as a writer, he thought the path to success was to do what everyone else was doing. He found inspiration in other people’s work, but he lacked originality. It wasn’t until later in his career that he began to discover what he called the truths beneath his skin and behind his eyes.
Last Wednesday on The Fight Spot, I wrote about removing ourselves from the Echo Chamber. An echo chamber is “an enclosed space for producing reverberation of sound.”
Have you ever felt that you’re spending too much time in an enclosed place where the majority of what you hear is unoriginal and whatever you say is echoed back to you?
When we get too absorbed in things like the platform, the analytics, the new, and the feedback, then the echo chamber becomes the place where we compare ourselves by ourselves. It’s noisy. Inspiration runs dry. Our creativity gets stifled. We grow cynical and sarcastic. We lose motivation for doing meaningful work; it serves as an ever-present distraction and pacifier from doing work that matters.
* * *
I’m going to ask you a question. And I want you to answer honestly.
Don’t answer to me or to your peers. Don’t answer with what you think you should say. Take a breath and answer honestly to yourself.
Okay, here’s the question:
Do you want to do work that matters?
Pause for a moment.
Think about it.
Okay. One more question:
Are you willing to be foolish?
Pause for a moment.
Think about it.
Are you willing to be foolish in order to do work that matters? Are you willing to fail? To be honest with others? Are you willing to create something even when life is still messy? Are you willing to take risks? Are you willing to put your work out there even when you’re afraid it might not work? Are you willing to try something different than what everyone else is doing because your gut says “why not”? Are you willing to make space in your schedule so you can show up and create something every day?
In our heart, we say, “Yes!” Then we tell ourselves we’ll start tomorrow.
Most of us want to do work that matters. But most of us don’t want to be foolish. At least, not right now. Or, we’re okay with being foolish so long as it’s calculated, planned out, polished, and then distilled down to the lowest common denominator until it’s so insipid it couldn’t possibly be confused as foolishly original.
Here’s a tip: it’s easier to be foolish and to take risks when you are surrounded by people who are also being foolish and taking risks.
If you want to do work that matters, then run from the risk averse and put yourself right in the middle of the foolish crowd.
How can you become a voice — how can you provide something original, unique, and valuable — when all your inputs are unoriginal echoes?
As you may or may not know, a few weeks ago I started an email newsletter. It’s called The Fight Spot. It goes out every Wednesday (like today!), and it’s about creativity, focus, and risk. All of which are moving targets; all of which are a fight.
Over the past several weeks, many of the The Fight Spot newsletters, plus several blog posts here on shawnblanc.net, as well as some Shawn Today and Weekly Briefly podcast episodes, have been on the topic of procrastination.
A lot of you have emailed me or tweeted to say thanks for these articles. Such as Ryan, who wrote me to share this:
I’m typically one who will skim an email and archive it, but this is one I’ve already read multiple times and it’s still in my inbox. It’s likely going to end up as a pinned note in Evernote so I can refer back to it often. This is exactly the kind of thing I strive to consider and focus on… this is the perfect reminder to keep focused on the essential.
I wanted to put all the procrastination-centric content together into a single document. It’s called The Procrastinator’s Guide to Progress.
It’s a completely free, refined and organized PDF version of all the blog posts, newsletters, and podcast episodes I’ve been putting out there related to procrastination over the past month.
It’s 40-pages long, 8,500 words and change, and is comprised of 13 short sections.
On Monday I sent the guide out to everyone on The Fight Spot newsletter list and the feedback has been great.
Here’s what Greg Colker wrote me to say about the guide:
This morning I read the Procrastinator’s Guide to Progress and it’s really good! I love how concise it is and yet packed with the best principles for being the best person you can be. I also like that you included a suggestion to pay attention to procrastination, to learn from it. That’s important, but often overlooked.
If you want to subscribe to The Fight Spot newsletter, I’ll send you The Procrastinator’s Guide to Progress for free:
I was scared to death to tell everyone I was quitting my job to try and be a full-time “blogger”.
I had been writing this site on the side for several years, but in 2011 I decided to quit my job as a creative and marketing director. I quit so I could write here as my full-time gig.
Aside from the fear of rejection, the fear that my membership drive would be a colossal embarrassment, and the fear that I was throwing my future away, one of the things I feared most was that I’d run out of things to write about.
That was four years ago. The fears about rejection, the membership drive, and my wasted future all turned out to be for naught. As did the fear of running out of things to write about.
What I didn’t anticipate was just how easy it could be for a full-time writer to never actually write.
About two months ago, as the holiday season was winding down and the new year was upon us, I realized something about my morning work routine. I was spending the best part of my day checking inboxes and analytics.
Every day when I came downstairs to my office to work, my first instinct was to check all the things. Were there any urgent @replies? What about urgent emails? What was our website traffic like yesterday? How much did we make on affiliate income?
I told myself these stats were important metrics, and it was okay to check them right away. Who knows if someone may have emailed me with a problem on one of my websites that I needed to know about as soon as possible?
In truth, there were never any urgent emails or Twitter replies. Traffic and income were almost always exactly what they always were. And the process of checking all these inboxes and statistics usually would spiral into an hour or more of just surfing.
I was wasting the best part of my day.
This was not how I wanted to spend the first hours of my work day.
Which is why I decided to change my habits.
I made a commitment that every morning I would write for 30 minutes no matter what. This writing time would be the first thing I did each morning when I started my work day.
Additionally, I committed that I would not check any statistics or inboxes until at least 9am. I start my work day at 7:30am, so I knew I had a good 90 minutes of time where my only goal was to write, think, or plan.
Lastly, I started playing the same music every morning during my 30 minutes of writing time. I have a soundtrack playlist on Rdio. I’d put on my headphones and hit play on that playlist.
For the first several days, it was a mental workout. My mind rebelled. I literally went into inbox withdrawal. I wanted to check the inboxes and the stats. But I would keep my commitment to write for 30 minutes no matter what. If I every finished writing at 8:59am, I would wait one more minute — until it was 9:00am — before I moved on and began checking the stats and the inboxes.
It took about a week before began to get into the groove. When I’d walk into my office I knew that the first thing I was going to do was write. It didn’t matter if I wanted to or not. I was committed to write for at least half an hour.
Before I made this habit change, I was usually writing 500 to 1,000 words every day. But I didn’t have an exact time for when I’d do my writing, nor did I have a clear idea for what I’d be writing about. It was hit or miss, honestly. Some days I didn’t write at all. And I certainly wasn’t making daily, iterative progress on my long-term writing goals.
However, since I made this change a month ago I’ve written over 40,000 words.
40,000 words in one month.
I’m glad I decided to change my morning habits.
I still am keeping my commitment to write for 30 minutes no matter what. But those 30 minutes almost always spill over. Most days I write for 2 to 3 hours in the morning. Sometimes more. And I often spend an hour writing in the afternoon as well because I have so much momentum left over from what I began working on that morning.
This is funny to me.
Because here I am writing a book about living with diligence and focus. And yet I realized I was not being very focused with my writing habit, nor was I working with clear goals in mind. Sure, I was writing every day, but I wasn’t doing my best creative work.
All throughout my book I hit on this one very important point: focus and diligence are moving targets.
We never just “get it”. It’s something we always have to be working on, reassessing, and re-evaluating. But it’s worth the work. If we make a small change that brings us just a slight increase to our productivity and creativity, the returns we’ll get over the course of our lives will be immeasurable.
The worst assumption I could make would be that I have it all together. That I have it all worked out and never have to change my lifestyle, habits, or work routines.
If I had assumed that, then I never would have realized I’m not reaching my best potential in this season of life. By making a small change (to write for 30 minutes each morning before checking Twitter) I drastically increased the quantity and quality of my creative output every day.
They say that after the age of 30 you begin to reject new technology. The things that existed or were invented before you turned 30 you accept and adapt into your life. But the things invented after you turn 30 you reject as being crazy or evil or who knows what.
If people do that with technology how much more so with lifestyle habits and practices and workflows?
After four years of being a full-time writer, I’m glad I allow myself to reevaluate my workflows and my habits and my routines. These things just degrade over time, and so they need to be evaluated. And I need to keep learning how to do things a little bit better.
My friend, Justin Jackson, wrote an article about the potential pitfalls of following in your heroes’ footsteps. He writes:
As creators, there’s a temptation to seek out our heroes and ask them how they achieved their success. We think if we follow their instructions, we’ll be able to reproduce their winning magic.
Justin goes on to make some excellent points. We can’t follow in the footsteps of our heroes because the path has changed since they first took it. Also, their personality is different than ours. So too their circumstances — perhaps they were single with no kids when they started their company, or perhaps they were 65 when they got started.
However, there are mindsets and lifestyle commitments that we can emulate. What where the underlying principles that led them to be consistent, focused, and successful?
I think we could sum it up thusly:
A commitment to honesty and clarity with a bias toward action.
A Commitment to Honesty and Clarity. This means we don’t shy away from the truth of who we want to be, where we are, where we want to go, what capacity we hold, what we want to build, and how we will build it. Don’t shy away from being honest with yourself and finding clarity about your vision, values, goals, and resources.
A Bias Toward Action: This is doing the work. Showing up every day. Focusing on what’s important but not necessarily urgent. Getting things done.
If you’re familiar with Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits, you’ll see that this sums up the first three habits, but especially so the 2nd. The habit of beginning with the end in mind is all about the balance between leadership and management.
Covey writes about how things are created twice: first there is the idea and then there is the manifestation of that idea. First we build with our imagination, then we build with our hands. Both stages of “creating” are vital because we need both clarity and action.
Too much focus on ideas and we’ll never do the work. But too much focus on staying busy and we may find ourselves spinning our wheels without making progress or creating anything of value.
* * *
Coming back to Justin’s article about not following in our heroes’ footsteps. It’s true that our heroes have possibly forgotten the exact path they took (because it was 10 or 20 years ago for them), or that the landscape is different now than it was then, or just the fact that we and our heroes are alltogether different people with different life circumstances, etc.
And so, when we glean from those whom we look up to, the goal isn’t to peer over their shoulder and peek at their to-do list and their agenda. Rather, we should glean from their values, their approach to problem solving, and their work ethic.
And at the end of the day, I believe we’ll find a common denominator amongst so many of the succesful people we look up to. Those who create incredible businesses, who are prolific in their art, who serve others well:
They have a commitment to honesty and clarity, and they have a bias toward action.
* * *
Drilling down a bit further, there are more than a few lists and charts I’ve come across in the reading and study I’ve been doing for my upcoming book. And as I was comparing these lists and charts, two that have stuck out to me are Tony Robbins’ 5 questions as a way to help us with honesty and clarity and then Stephen Covey’s 7 habits as a way to help us with action.
Tony Robbins’ 5 Questions
Marc Benioff’s V2MOM method (Vision, Values, Methods, Obstacles, Measurements) which are based on Tony Robbins’ five questions help us be honest.
- What do I really want? (Vision)
- What is important about it? (Values)
- How will I get it? (Methods)
- What is preventing me from having it? (Obstacles)
- How will I know I am successful? (Measurements)
Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits
Stephen Covey’s book helps us develop a lifestyle with a bias toward action. The 7 Habits are:
Be Proactive: Taking responsibility and chosing to do something with our life. A commitment to making forward progress — to just getting going. To act instead of be acted on. To cease blaming external circumstances. To be solution oriented. To focus on what we can control and what we can do something about (called our “circle of influence”).
Begin with the End in Mind: Imagination and leadership. Knowing who you want to be and what you wan to do. Also, knowing that vision isn’t enough — we also have to take those ideas and make them a reality. We have to think and act. Plan and do. The need for both leadership and management.
Put First Things First: Have a bias toward action, but have that action be in line with your vision, values, and doing important work and making progress on meaningful work.
Think Win-Win: Life is not a zero-sum game. We can put others first and serve them without endangering our own goals. Cooperation not competition.
Seek first to understand, then to be understood: It’s important to listen with the intent to understand. Don’t be selfish or narcissistic. (This is what Dale Carnegie’s book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, is all about.)
Synergize: We go further together. Two heads are better than one. Teamwork, cooperation, open-mindedness. The differences in our peers, co-workers, and family members should be seen as strengths, not weaknesses.
Sharpen the Saw — Being commited to personal growth and renewal in the four areas of our life: physical, social/emotional, mental, and spiritual.
* * *
As I mentioned above, there are so many lists and methodologies for personal growth and becoming a person who gets things done. None of them are “the only one”. There is no secret potion. Which is why I’ve been trying to see if there’s a common denominator. Is there just a simple concept or idea to keep in the front of mind as we try to stay steady in our pursuit of doing our best creative work?
I think there is. It’s having a commitment to honesty and clarity with a bias toward action.
You’d be hard pressed to find a successful musician, athlete, programmer, designer, writer, singer, or businessman who didn’t have a goal in mind and who didn’t show up every day to practice and work hard.
By the way, I just kicked off The Fight Spot newsletter — my weekly email about creativity, focus, and risk.
If you want to stay in the loop with the creativity and productivity-centric writing I’m doing (as well as be notified when my new book comes out, The Power of a Focused Life), then joining the email list is one of the best ways to be notified.
My grandmother used to say, “don’t put off to tomorrow what you can do today.” Tomorrow will have enough craziness of its own, right?
All through high school and college, I pretty much lived the opposite of my grandmother’s advice. Why do now what I can put off until the very last minute?
To play devil’s advocate, in some ways putting off a project or task until the last minute can have some benefits. Eventually you’ll be forced to make a choice: are you going to do the project or not? Assuming you decide to do it, then by nature of waiting until the very last minute, you’ll be forced to focus on it (though probably immediately and under stress). But at least you’ve finally started to work on it and at least you’re focused. Right?
Meh. The disadvantages of procrastination far outweigh the (occasional, if any) advantages there may be. Chances are you’re not doing your best work because you’re feeling stressed and rushed. You have to complete the task by a certain time and so there may not be enough time to do your best work. Moreover, consider the period of procrastination and all the time that was degraded. When you’re putting a project off (deferring it with no clear plan of attack other than “later), your brain won’t let go. You’re operating at a sub-optimal capacity because you’ve got this weight of the undone project and its undefined plan of attack.
You know this. I know this. Yet still we procrastinate. Why?
Why do we procrastinate?
- Because we lack motivation.
- There are other things we’d rather be doing.
- We don’t know what the first step to get started is.
- We’re afraid.
- We’re easily distracted.
- We think we lack the resources to start / complete the task.
- The project feels overwhelming.
- We’re stubborn.
- We have a history of procrastinating and not seeing our tasks through to the end.
Surely the most common reason to procrastinate is a lack of motivation. If we were motivated (or, instead of “motivated”, use the word “excited”) to accomplish a task, then we’d be doing it.
Oftentimes it takes that looming deadline or some other external force to motivate us to finally take care of the task. Or, if it’s a task with no deadline, we may find ourselves putting it off for months, if not years. “I’ll get to it someday,” we tell ourselves.
Meanwhile, there are other things we have no trouble staying motivated to do. Such as making time to eat, sleep, be with our family, read a book, watch a movie, go to the mall, go to our job, play video games, etc. And oftentimes it is these other tasks and hobbies that we turn to when we are procrastinating. For example, instead of cleaning out the garage like we’ve been meaning to, we watch a movie. Or instead of working on the next chapter of our book, we play a video game.
How then do we beat procrastination? Is the answer to only ever work on projects we’re excited about? If you were making a living from your passion, would you never deal with procrastination again?
The adrenaline we get from fresh motivation only lasts so long. It’s awesome while it lasts, but it comes and goes. Don’t blame your tendency to procrastinate and your lack of motivation on external circumstances.
In a few weeks it will be the four-year anniversary of when I quit my job to write for a living. And just a couple days ago I was asked if I ever get tired of writing. My answer was that yes, I often get tired of writing.
When I come to the keyboard to begin writing, a million potential distractions stand at my doorstep. There are many days when I’d rather give in to one of the distractions instead of doing my writing. But I choose not to. I write when I’m tired. I write when I’m uninspired. I write when the weather outside is beautiful. I write when I’m not even sure what to write about.
I have an appointment with my keyboard every day. Every time I cancel that appointment, it becomes all the easier to cancel it again. And then again. And that, my friends, is a slippery slope.
One big myth about creativity is that it cannot be harnessed. That creative folks should float around aimlessly, waiting for the muse to show up. And while I’m all about being able to capture inspiration and ideas whenever and wherever they strike, I’m not about to let my creative life rest on the whims of the muse.
It is silly to think a creative person should live without routine, discipline, or accountability.
The advice I like to give young artists, or really anybody who’ll listen to me, is not to wait around for inspiration. Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself. Things occur to you. If you’re sitting around trying to dream up a great art idea, you can sit there a long time before anything happens. But if you just get to work, something will occur to you and something else will occur to you and something else that you reject will push you in another direction. Inspiration is absolutely unnecessary and somehow deceptive. You feel like you need this great idea before you can get down to work, and I find that’s almost never the case.
Sure, inspiration often comes when we least expect it, and so by all means, let us allow exceptions to our schedules. But sitting around being idle while in wait for inspiration is a good way to get nothing done. And worse, it is also a way to let the creative juices get stagnant.
My all-time favorite Benjamin Franklin quote is: “Little strokes fell great oaks.”
Everyone longs for major victories and big breakthroughs in their work. But those would never happen if it weren’t for the little progress we take every single day by staying committed and showing up.
In a blog post about his writing process, Seth Godin concluded with the sentiment that there is no “right way” to write. He says: “The process advice that makes sense to me is to write. Constantly. At length. Often.”
And, to quote Ray Bradbury: “Quantity produces quality. If you only write a few things, you’re doomed.”
Procrastination robs us of this. It keeps us from showing up every day. It tells us that instead of showing up every day, we can just cram at the last minute. It tells us that there is always tomorrow. It lies to us, saying that just because we’re ignoring this task again and again doesn’t mean we’ve quit.
The only difference between a quitter and an habitual procrastinator is that the latter is lying to herself.
If what I’m saying is true, then procrastination is perhaps the greatest enemy to producing meaningful work. Because not only does procrastination keep us from doing the work, but in so doing, it also robs us from the process of sitting down every day to be creative. It’s in the day-to-day mundane and difficult work of showing up that our ideas take shape and take flight. It’s in that place that our skills are forged bit by bit.
The path to success (both in our career and in accomplishing our life goals) is rarely glamorous. It’s usually mundane and repetitive. Underachievers will waste their time daydreaming about when their big break will come while they procrastinate doing work they don’t see as important.
Meanwhile, true achievers will do the work, day in and day out, with vision and strategy. I once read that successful people don’t work harder than unsuccessful people; they work much, much harder
Procrastination left unchecked gains momentum
The longer you put something off the easier it becomes. And that unchecked procrastination bleeds over into the other areas of our life.
People who are disciplined with their finances are usually disciplined with their time and diet as well. Having structure and focus in one area of our life gives us clarity and momentum to bring structure to the other areas of our life.
Inversely, when we are unstructured and lacking discipline in one area, that lack of discipline will bleed over to other areas of our life.
Which is why procrastination is far more lethal that we think. By procrastinating, we are lying to ourselves. We say we’ll do something, but when the time comes, we don’t. We put it off.
Breaking your own commitment to yourself causes your subconscious to distrust your conscious. Our personal integrity is eroded just a little bit every time we defer a task, snooze the alarm, or cancel an appointment. Thus, making it increasingly more difficult to follow through with your self-assigned goals, plans, and tasks.
Making consistent progress on our goals is as easy (and difficult) as eating healthy, exercising, and living within our means. Anybody can do it, but most people don’t.
Regaining your personal integrity
Here is a paraphrased excerpt from a book I read years ago that changed my life. The book is by Peter J. Daniels, titled How to Be Motivated All the Time.
This is from the chapter on Deep Personal Integrity (emphasis mine):
“If you are having difficulty in staying motivated all the time, examine closely your personal integrity. Root out past and present commitments you have made and ask yourself the question, ‘Would I treat another person with the same level of integrity I display toward myself?’ My guess is that we treat other people with much more commitment and integrity!
“One of the major reasons we do not remain motivated all the time is we do not retain integrity towards ourselves in the same measure as we do towards others. Highly motivated people are those who keep commitments to others, but who also keep commitments to themselves. That is why they always look and sound so confident and why they achieve and keep on achieving.
“We are good at justifying in the moment when we don’t want to do something.
“When you make a commitment to yourself you decide on a change of attitude. In effect you announce to your whole being that you are going to do something which requires total attention and help. But if you renege on your commitment, in effect you prevent all your conscious and subconscious faculties from completing the task and render them useless. What happens then is, that next time you become excited about the possibilities of a project and make a commitment, your subconscious responses will be slightly slower and less enthusiastic than before. It is as if they remember the previous broken commitments, consider the new project may not be fulfilled and decide that full effort is not required.
“If you continually break commitments you almost bind yourself totally from completing anything because there is no track record of success in your subconscious.
“If it helps, make less commitments to yourself but follow through completely on even the most frivolous. It’s not so stupid to start by placing your shoes in exactly the same position each night without fail. Do this irrespective of what time you get home or how you feel from one day to the next. As crazy as this seems it will actually increase your sense of integrity. You will prove to yourself that you can keep a long-term commitment at the most menial level.”
The difference between motivation and work ethic
The answer for beating procrastination won’t ultimately be found by changing your external circumstances. Now, there are things you can change to help you stay focused (such as quitting the Twitter app when you’re trying to write). And there are certain distractions you can remove altogether (such as giving up television). However, these changes in and of themselves are not the ultimate answer. They can be powerful and helpful, but at the end of the day, overcoming procrastination is about building up a strong work ethic towards the tasks and projects you’re prone to put off.
Showing up every day is hard, hard work. Once the honeymoon phase of a fresh idea is over we’re faced with the reality that we have a lot of difficult and mundane, work to do. If I were to only do the work when I felt excited, then I’d have a hundred half-started projects sitting around and zero completed ones.
For me, the best part of a project is everything before and after. I love to dream and brainstorm about it. And I love it when I’m done. But the whole part in-between — the actual doing of the project — that’s hard work.
But the hard work is the only part that counts. By making a habit of showing up to do the work every day, you build a resistance to the mundaneness of it. And eventually it just becomes part of what you do every day. You don’t have waste energy thinking about if you’re going to show up or not, you just do. And,in the words of President Obama, that routinization helps you focus your decision-making energy for the work and choices that matter most.
How to overcome procrastination
With all that said, here are some ways to help overcome procrastination. Perhaps you’re a habitual procrastinator. Perhaps there’s just that one project you’ve been putting off. Or maybe it’s just various things here and there, and you want to get better at completing your tasks in a timely and disciplined manner.
If so, consider one or more of these different approaches to help overcome procrastination.
Set an appointment: Do you know when you’re next going to work on your project? You don’t find time, you make it. Set a daily or weekly appointment with yourself. Tell your spouse about it. Now, that is the time slot when you’ll work on that project. Honor that appointment just as much as you would if it were with someone else.
Plan first, act later. If you already have a time set aside for when you show up to do the work but often find that you lack inspiration when it’s time to work because each time you sit down you first have to think of what the next action step is, you’ll just get discouraged. Consider having a separate time for planning from the time when you are doing the work on a project. Come up with the ideas and action steps elsewhere and then when you sit down to do the work, you’ve already identified what you need to do.
Get accountable: Having accountability goes a long way in helping us keep our commitments. (This is why we finally stop procrastinating at the last minute, because we’re accountable to the deadline.) Some ways you can be accountable include putting yourself into a position of leadership and responsibility where others are counting on you to get the job done; get an accountability partnership where your peers are asking you about the progress you’re making; make a public commitment on your social network, blog, etc. and state what you’re doing and what the timeframe is.
Set the initial bar of quality low: Give yourself permission to produce a crappy first draft or to have a bunch of horrible ideas right off the bat. This is one of my most important “tricks” — I allow my first draft to be the child’s draft. The point is to show up and write. And then I know I can edit and iterate on my article later. But if I wait to write until I can say it just perfectly, I’ll never get it done.
Delegate or delete: If there is a task or project you’ve been continually putting off, try to delegate if you you can. Or, if it’s something you don’t have to do, consider just dropping it altogether. If it’s important, it will re-surface. And it’s better to be honest with yourself (and others) that you’re not going to get to the project than it is to keep putting it off.
Clean your workspace when you’re done: That way, when it’s next time to do the work, there are no distractions or road blocks standing in your way. You have a tidy workspace and you know what next you need to work on. Then, when you’re done working, clean up again so you’re ready for the next time.
Make a lifestyle change: Even a temporary one. Eliminate the most common distraction sinks from your life. Say to yourself: “I don’t play video games.” Or, “I don’t go to the movies.” Or, “I’m not on Facebook.” Or, “I don’t check Twitter or email before lunch.” Now stick with it.
Act fast on your ideas: Seize that initial wave of motivation and momentum. Ideas demise over time; act on them and begin iterating as fast as you can. Set milestones which can be accomplish in a week’s time or less, and work toward that goal riding the adrenaline for 5-7 days. Then, set the next milestone and repeat.
Track your small wins every day: By recognizing and logging the daily progress you’re making on your work, you’re able to see the small victories you make each day. You realize that you are making progress on meaningful work. This increases your morale and momentum — contributing to a healthy inner work life — and thus gives you a boost in your ability to be more productive and creative.
By the way, a version of this article was sent out this morning to The Fight Spot newsletter — my new, weekly email about creativity, focus, and risk.
If you want to stay in the loop with the creativity and productivity-centric writing I’m doing (as well as be notified when my new book comes out, The Power of a Focused Life), then joining the email list is one of the best ways to be notified.
How would you define a successful creative career?
There are two important elements: creative freedom and financial stability.
So let’s define success as having the ability to do creative work we’re proud of and to keep doing that work.
Now, there is no recipe for this stuff. It’s different for each person and changes with all sorts of factors like skills, passion, and even geographic location. It important to define creative success in such a way that it doesn’t require a particular location, vocation, or paycheck.
However, there is more to it than creative freedom and financial stability. Something else is also critical to our long-term journey of doing our best creative work.
We need a healthy inner work life.
Our emotional and motivated state is just as important (if not more important) as our finances, tools, work environment, and overall creative freedom.
Teresa Amabile is a professor at Harvard Business School. In 2012 she gave an excellent talk at the 99U conference. In that talk she shares about how our inner work life is what lays the foundation for being our most productive and our most creative.
When our emotional and motivated state — our inner work life — is strong and positive then we are most likely to be at our best in terms of creativity and productivity.
What drives our inner work life? Well, a lot of things. But one of the most important is making progress on meaningful work.
When we see that we are making progress — even small victories — then it strengthens our emotional and motivated state. We are happier and more motivated at work. And therfore, we are more likely to be productive and creative.
Consider the inverse. When we feel like cogs in a machine then we see our time as being spent just doing meaningless busy work and not contributing to anything worthwhile. And so we slowly lose our desire to be productive and efficient. We don’t care about coming up with creative solutions or fresh ideas. We just do what’s required of us in order to get our paycheck so we can go home to our television.
This is one reason why having an annual review for yourself (and your team / company) can be so beneficial. It reminds everyone of the goals accomplished and the projects completed. It shows that the oftentimes mundane and difficult work we do every day is actually adding up to something of value.
Coming back to Teresa Amabile, she calls this the Progress Principle. In short, making progress on meaningful work is critical to being happy, motivated, productive, and creative in our work.
And so, if progress is so important, why do we seem to celebrate only the big victories and only once or twice per year?
One of the greatest ways to recognince our progress is to celebrate all victories — big and small. And one of the best ways to celebrate and chronicle the small victories is with our own daily journal.
We often forget about our small wins after a few days or weeks. Or they quickly get buried under our never ending to-do lists. Or, if we don’t recognize and celebrate them, then they stop being “small wins” and start just being “what we should be doing anyway”.
By cataloging and celebrating our small wins each day then we can be reminded that we are making meaningful progress. And, in truth, it’s the small wins which all add up to actually complete the big projects and big goals. As Benjamin Franklin said, it’s little strokes that fell great oaks. And so, to celebrate a big victory is actually to celebrate the summation of a thousand small victories.
At the root of most bad writing, Stephen King says you’ll find fear. It’s fear — or timidity — that holds a writer back from doing her best creative work.
Ray Bradbury admitted this outright: “I did what most writers do at their beginnings: emulated my elders, imitated my peers, thus turning away from any possibility of discovering truths beneath my skin and behind my eyes.”
You’ll also find fear at the root of most non-writing. Shame, doubt, worry, second-guessing, and all their cousins stand guard against us when we sit down to deal with the blank page.
As someone who writes for a living, I can tell you this: anything that keeps me from writing is public enemy number one. And the one thing that most keeps me from writing is fear.
Fear works against me more than my lack of time, focus, ideas, and talent combined. Time, focus, ideas, talent — these are all quantifiable. But fear? Fear is completely irrational. You can’t argue with it, you can’t tell it to go away, you can’t schedule around it, and you can’t bribe it or distract it.
But you know what else about fear? It’s universal.
We all feel afraid and timid when facing that blank page. Look around at some of your favorite writers and creators. They are more than talented and hard working. They are brave. They’ve found a way to keep writing in the midst of their fear.
* * *
To pull the curtain back just a little, oftentimes the thing which most keeps me from writing is a fear of putting my own narcissism out on display for all to see. So often my first draft is little more than my own self-centered view of the world — a world where I sit at the center. This is not the world I am trying to build up, but when writing, how can any of us write about anything else but what we know and what we have heard? We write about what we know and what we feel. We write from our own soul and our own heart and we share what we’ve seen through our own eyes and what we’ve heard through our own ears. We write from the inside out.
Here is how I deal with my own fear, doubt, worry. When writing that first draft, it’s allowed to be as horrible and ugly and awkward and egocentric as it needs to be.
This first draft is the personal draft. It’s the crappy draft. Nothing is off limits. I can write whatever I want and say it however I want. Everything is fair game so long as it keeps the cursor moving.
When the first draft is done, then the work of editing begins. It’s time to edit not just for flow and grammar and clarity, but edit for the reader. It is time to take this story that was once built with the author at the center and to instead put the reader at the center.
When you are writing, write however you must. Don’t let fear or timidity keep you from being honest and exciting. And when you are editing, improve your words so they serve the reader. Write for yourself, but edit for your reader.
There are many books, speeches, articles, sermons, quotes, and conversations which have shaped us over the years into the people we are.
We retain a limited amount information when learning something new, and our recollection and interpretation of that information gets foggier over time.
The best way to keep important information fresh and accurate is to review it regularly.
Idea: The Core Curriculum
And so, why not put together a small notebook that contains highlights and summaries from the books, speeches, articles, sermons, teachings, and other things which have most shaped us? Our own Core Curriculum.
Have it cover the most important areas of life, such as:
- Personal growth
- Spiritual foundations
- Relationships (spouse, kids, friends, peers)
- Vocational wisdom
- Living with focus and diligence
- Financial health and wisdom
- Creative inspiration
Then, once a year or so, go through the notebook. Read your summaries and highlights to stay familiar with the things that have shaped you.
Just the act of making your Core Curriculum notebook will in and of itself be an excellent way to re-learn the material. And reviewing it once a year will help keep your mind and emotions and actions on track with the values and vision you already carry.
A.K.A. The Commonplace Book
This idea isn’t entirely new. Commonplace books have been around for hundreds of years:
Commonplace books (or commonplaces) were a way to compile knowledge, usually by writing information into books. Such books were essentially scrapbooks filled with items of every kind: medical recipes, quotes, letters, poems, tables of weights and measures, proverbs, prayers, legal formulas. Commonplaces were used by readers, writers, students, and scholars as an aid for remembering useful concepts or facts they had learned. Each commonplace book was unique to its creator’s particular interests.
Today, we all have Internet Communication Devices in our pockets. The need for building our own index of important facts isn’t quite so necessary because we can search for anything using just our phones.
But what is important is remembering foundational principles for how to live life and to live it well. Our values, ideals, thoughts, emotions, and habits are bombarded every day in so many different ways. Movies, commercials, TV shows, social media, and so much more tell us how we ought to live and what we should believe. Which is why our Core Curriculum notebook should be comprised of things that speak truth to who we are, who we want to be, and what we want to do.
* * *
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been building the outline of my own Core Curriculum. And I’ll be working on it for the rest of the year, no doubt. My goal is that when completed, it will take about one month for me to read through it. It’ll be something to do each January as a 31-day study guide of sorts that reminds me and inspires in the topics of spirituality, living a disciplined and productive life, marriage, fathering, creativity, work, and relationships.
As longtime readers of this site will remember, the Sweet Mac Setup interview series used to be hosted here. That was before The Sweet Setup launched a little over a year ago and took over the interviews.
The very first Sweet Mac Setup interview was with Mark Jardine on May 31, 2009.
In the fall of 2010, I “rebooted” the interview series and added in a new question:
“How does this setup help you do your best creative work?”
I wanted the interview questions to draw out more than just information about the hardware and software people were using. As a reader, I wanted to know how people’s tools were empowering them to be more creative than if they didn’t have those tools.
There were 28 Sweet Setup Interviews that asked the question about doing creative work. This morning I read through each of those interviews again. Here I want to share some of the answers from the interviews:
I like focus — simple software that doesn’t have a lot of bells and whistles helps me find that focus. I like things that do very little, very well. I try to cut out distractions — Tweetdeck or Tweetie, iChat or Skype, these things distract me.
Notational Velocity is the perfect writing app. All it does is write text, and it stores everything in text files, and you can find them instantly. You don’t need to file, and you don’t need to look for things.
For me the tech I use should actually make my life easier to manage, not get in the way of the process. I am not a super geek by any stretch of the imagination, I just learn the tools I need to know to accomplish what I want to.
I love to look at the big picture whether I work at home or on-the-go, which is why I keep lots of resources available at a quick glance and why I use MacJournal. It’s the only Mac word processor I can find which lets me draft in rich text, but copy to the clipboard as the perfectly formatted, plain HTML that most CMSes want. Lots of my peers pen in HTML or Markdown, but I don’t like to look at code or URLs when I write. To me, code is code, and prose is prose. I want to draft, re-read, and continue drafting a piece as the reader will see it, watching for things like the visual flow of text and too many concurrent links that can weigh a paragraph down.
The combination of lots of display space and powerful hardware that can (most of the time) keep up with me make it easy to dig into the current endeavor. When I can comfortably view 4-6 source code files on the iMac and have my browser open on the second display, it requires me to do a lot less remembering. I don’t have to switch away from the current buffer to look up the correct parameter order for such-and-such function, I can just open it right next to where I’m working and see both side-by-side.
I liken my working style to the way my children play with toys: they don’t put away each toy as they finish playing with it (as much as I wish they would), so we have a great big cleanup party each evening where everything is organized and stowed in its right place. When I’m ready to wrap up the current day’s work, I’ll spend at least 3-4 minutes closing a dozen Safari windows, Firefox Downloads windows, Evernote notes and such. I like that I have the canvas and the horsepower to work that way without it getting bogged down or looking cluttered.
I trust it. When you’ve got a trusted system in place, your mind stops bugging you about “we ought to be doing [X]” and lets you focus its resources on the task at hand. I know that OmniFocus and the Printable CEO forms will capture anything important so that I won’t miss it. With that off my mind, I can get down to writing.
It’s a pretty time-consuming this writing novels, running two blogs while having a full-time job for a design agency business. It means I have to do things whenever and wherever I can. My setup is designed – well, it’s evolved, more accurately – to allow me to do that. It’s all about the sync.
With DropBox, Simplenote and an iPhone 4, I can access everything I need at all times. I can edit files on my work PC at lunch and know they’ll be there when I get home. I can approve comments, make notes or catch up on some reading on my phone while I’m waiting for the bus. And again, when I get home, my Mac is up-to-date.
Novel number one was written on no less than six different computers – a combination of desktop PCs, laptops and my iMac — in even more locations, using goodness knows how many USB drives for transferring and backing up.
Novel two will be written on just my future-iPad and my iMac. That says it all, really.
I’ve tried my best to surround myself with tools that help me get the job done faster. I take notes in Notational Velocity, which is connected with SimpleNote, so that I never have to save, rename, or move the files again. I keep inspiration logged in Yojimbo and Littlesnapper, both of which sync across my computers. And I try my best to master hot keys to save time and effort.
Creativity is all about reducing the distance from inspiration to retention. I might not be able to react to a moment of inspiration right away, but if I can capture it properly (via screenshot, dragging into Yojimbo, or typing the idea out) I can come back to it when I’m ready.
I believe that a setup should facilitate an efficient workflow. I’ve noticed most of my Mac-using friends utilize a one-machine setup and it meets their needs — especially when the choice is laptop while on-the-go with a Cinema Display parked at home. However, I’ve found that investing in a multi-machine setup meets the needs of my family as well as my differing job descriptions and their requirements. With cloud-based apps and syncing technology, multi-machine setups are now easy to keep cohesive and consistent day-to-day.
My main job is to find and sift through endless streams and piles of information, so being able to have 2 or 3 windows open at the same time, large enough to see a bunch of data, is why I love the big iMac so much. At Business Insider, I had a second 24-inch screen open to TweetDeck all day, but I don’t really like multi-screen setups. I’m really big on symmetry. During baseball season, sometimes I’ll prop up my iPad next to me to keep the Cubs game on, because the iOS version of MLB’s stream is better than the Flash-based web version.
Maintaining a desktop workstation with a broad range of functionality and a portable setup with a synchronized subset of tho se apps and scripts lets me work when and where I can be most productive. My creativity tends to wane the longer I sit at the desk, so being able to pick up and go somewhere (anywhere) else is often useful in finding my muse.
Part of the reason I love the Apple Bluetooth keyboards and Magic Trackpad is consistency between those work environments. My keys are always in the same place, my gestures match between machines and the overall feel is very similar between my desktop keyboards and the Air. That removes a lot of friction when switching modes and lets me concentrate on just producing.
I’m not sure my current physical setup does much for me creatively, to be honest. It’s mainly the software, and in that sense I benefit from the work other people did. Other people figured out what’s needed in a good video editor before I ever started shooting video. Other people figured out how to capture raw photo data and how to get the most from it. Other people solved a lot of technical problems for me before I even knew I had them. Because of those engineers, obstacles get out of my way and let me just concentrate on getting things done.
* * *
Reading through the above answers, as well as all the others, I noticed a bit of a trend.
- People have specific creative goals they are trying to accomplish (write, code, photograph, edit movies, etc.), and they’ve found a combination of hardware and software that helps them facilitate those goals.
- There’s a level of comfort and frictionlessness that comes with hardware that’s the right combination of powerful and portable to do the job.
- There’s something freeing about having a clean and thoughtfully put together work space.
This is a topic I want to explore more. In fact, I plan to on today’s episode of The Weekly Briefly which I’ll be recording in a bit.
Technology often gets a bad rap as being “anti-creativity” because of issues such as the distractions of push notifications, our social network addiction, our tendency to pull out our iPhones any time we have a free moment, our overloaded inboxes, etc.
However, the ways in which technology has empowered us to do our best creative work far outnumber the ways it distracts us.
“Perpetual devotion to what a man calls his business, is only to be sustained by perpetual neglect of many other things.” — Robert Louis Stevenson
* * *
Like many of you, no doubt, I spent some time thinking about personal goals and ideas for this upcoming year. The new year is always a good time to reflect, take stock of where we are, and make sure we’re still on course for where we want to be.
In a few months I will begin my 5th year of working from home and working for myself (thanks in no small part to you, dear readers). One of the most empowering lessons I have learned over these past 4 years has been regarding my own limitations. Not merely my limitations of time, but also of energy.
In any given day I have 2 maybe 3 hours of good writing time in me. A couple hours of reading. Hopefully an hour or two of researching, thinking, or decision making. And maybe an hour of admin and other busywork.
If I push my day to include more than that, I often find myself not making much progress. There is a point when the responsible and productive thing for me to do is leave my office and stop working altogether.
The workaholic in me wants to squeeze in a few more tasks. I have friends who can crank out hours upon hours of productive, creative work. Alas, I’m not one of those types. And so I’m trying to let myself quit while I’m ahead and go upstairs to be with my family, or go run errands, or just lie down and stare at the ceiling while I listen to what is going on in my imagination.
Although I have a regular work schedule, I take time to go for long walks on the beach so that I can listen to what is going on inside my head. If my work isn’t going well, I lie down in the middle of a workday and gaze at the ceiling while I listen and visualize what goes on in my imagination.
I’m an advocate of productivity as much as the next guy with a blog, but over my years of working from home, I feel that too much focus on productivity is to miss the forest for the trees.
Being productive is not what’s ultimately important. I want to do my best creative work and I want to have thriving relationships.
Time management, GTD, focus, diligence — these can help keep me on track. But they are not the end goal in and of themselves. I want to focus first on creativity. What do I need to do my best creative work?
Have I written today? Have I daydreamed? Have I been contemplative? Have I had an inspiring and encouraging conversation? Have I helped somebody? These acts are far more important than the progress I make against my to-do list.
When you work for yourself, there is an oceanic undercurrent that pulls you into the details of your job. The thousand responsibilities of administration and communication and infrastructure. These are important, to be sure, because without them your business would cease to be. But (at least in my case) these are the support structures at best. The foundation of my business is not the ancillary administration; it is the muse.
In The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann, there’s this great line: “Order and simplification are the first steps toward the mastery of a subject…”
Mann’s line carries the same truth as the quote by Robert Louis Stevenson which is at the beginning of this article. Our devotion to a subject can only be sustained by the neglect of many others. Finding something we want to do is the easy part. Now we must decide what we will neglect — we must simplify where we spend our energy.
In this new year, as our thoughts are on what we can do and what we want to do, perhaps we should first think about what we will not do. What tasks and pursuits will we give up or entrust to others?
* * *
“A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.” — Henry Thoreau
In more ways than one, I grew up in a fussy coffee home. My parents didn’t want me drinking coffee until I was 16 because they were concerned the caffeine would stunt my growth. Who knows.
My home was also fussy about coffee because my dad only ever brewed with a french press. I grew up thinking that brewing and drinking coffee was a special thing. I still think that.
I’m now 33, and have more than made up for the cups of coffee I missed out on the first half of my life. In my kitchen we have a cupboard dedicated entirely to coffee contraptions: a Mokapot; a stovetop espresso maker; an Espro brand french press, a classic Bodum french press, and a single-serving french press; a vacuum siphon coffee maker; two different styles of V60; the Clever Dripper; a Kalita Wave; an Able Kone system; and, of course, the AeroPress.
They’re all great — each one is unique in its own way and brew method. The vacuum siphon pot is a lot of fun to use on special occasions; the Espro makes a large pot of coffee for guests; Able’s Kone Brewing System looks cool; etc.
But the AeroPress is by far and away my favorite. And I know I’m not alone here.
The AeroPress has become this sort of cult classic, popular geeky way to brew coffee. Everyone with a Twitter account recommends it. There’s even an AeroPress world championship competition. And yet, while you can go to your local hipster coffee shop and buy a french press or a pourover, you’d be hard pressed to find a shop that sells (much less even uses) the AeroPress.
So for something that isn’t found in mainstream coffee shops (or even most “hipster” coffee shops), why all the hype? What makes the AeroPress so cool?
I’ve brewed over 1,000 cups of coffee with my AeroPress. Here’s what I think is the good (and the bad) of the the AeroPress.
It’s cheap to buy. If you’re getting in to fussy coffee (or if you lose or demolish your AeroPress), a brand new one is just $25.
It’s cheap to use. For one, filters are super cheap — a year’s supply of paper filters cost just $4. And secondly, most AeroPress brew methods call for just 16-18g of coffee to brew a cup. There is very little waste.
Clean-up is easy. The AeroPress basically cleans itself as you use it. When you’re done brewing a cup, you twist off the cap and pop the puck into the trash. Then rinse and let dry. (Though I will say that I don’t think clean AeroPress cleanup up is quite as easy as with the V60. With the V60 you just toss the filter with grounds into the trash and then rinse the thing out.)
The AeroPress is easy to use when you’re away from your nerdy home coffee tools. The markings on the side of the AeroPress are helpful for measuring out coffee and water. Obviously you won’t need the markings if you’re using a scale to measure. But I take my AeroPress camping and on vacation, so I’ll pre-grind some coffee to take with me, and I know just how much water to add to make a great cup of coffee without having to guess or eyeball it.
These are things you probably already know about. What really makes the AeroPress such a great coffee maker is just how versatile it is. There are a lot of ways you can use it.
For my cupboardfull of aforementioned coffee brewing contraptions, each one has only one best way to brew coffee. The AeroPress has at least three different ways to brew coffee: espresso-like, pourover-esque, and french press-ish. Each way is completely legitimate and delicious.
Now, the AeroPress does have some cons of its own. As I mentioned above, it’s not quite as easy to clean as the V60. Also, the AeroPress can’t brew a big pot of coffee — for that, I use my Espro Press (the Chemex is also a fine choice).
In short, the AeroPress hype is real. If you like variety then the AeroPress lets you mix it up. If you mostly prefer this or that type of coffee, you can find a great way to brew it with the AeroPress. Regardless of the coffee beans or the style of coffee you prefer, there’s a good way to brew it with the AeroPress.
I love this game. Not only is it absolutely fantastic and fun, but it’s so delightfully designed for the iPhone.
To celebrate, here’s some Threes-related trivia and tips that will make you a skilled master in no time:
Did you know the game’s developers spent an entire year trying variations on the artwork and gameplay before finally settling on this simplified version that takes just a minute to learn?
Some more tips for playing Threes, including how new tiles are dealt onto the board.
The way scoring works in Threes, things go up exponentially as you’re able to get higher-numbered tiles.
Then we can get better at it.
We can learn to throw a baseball, to drive a car, and to build a website. So why not also learn to be diligent? Focus, self-control, time management, money management, integrity, creative output, communication skills. These aren’t personality traits, they’re skills we learn.
And just like with any skill, practice is how we get better.
Everyone knows that practicing on the ball field is how to get better at a sport. And the more time we spend in a field of study the more we will learn and grow.
Yet how many of us have settled with the feeling that we are just bad at getting things done? That we are not good at focusing? That distractions are going to get the best of us? That our best creative work is behind us? That’s bullarky. Don’t give up so easily.
Every day, the blank page is your batting practice. You’re not here because you’ve arrived, nor because you’re a superhero of focus and creative output. No, you’re here because you love it and you want to get better. Learn a little about yourself and how you work, find something small you can do to get better, and then add that to tomorrow’s practice.
It was the middle of March that I began my first Baron Fig notebook. About 255 days later, I’ve now hit the end of its 192 pages. About one page every 32 hours.
I ordered the Dot Grid, of course. As water tends to flow downward, I tend to choose black when buying gadgets, devices, and cars and I choose grid when buying notebooks.
The design of a Baron Fig notebook itself is full of character. The yellow ribbon and the grey cloth cover are both unique and friendly. The binding is of the upmost quality. And the notebook is sized to the exact dimensions of an iPad mini. Making it an ideal analog sidekick to the mostly-digital worker.
There are flaws to the notebook. For example, the cover doesn’t lay flat when closed. And I had to take a lighter to tend of the ribbon because it was fraying. Yet, after 9 months of use, these flaws are not points of frustration. Rather, they’ve become endearing shortcomings. Much like the flaws found in ourselves and in our friends — these are no longer flaws, they are quirks we’ve come to love.
I’ve owned and used many different journals and notebooks over the years. I have a growing collection of Field Notes which I don’t even use, but love to collect. My first foray into the world of “GTD” was my own version of a Hipster PDA (remember the Hipster PDA?). Mine was a pocket-sized Moleskine, with a few sticky-notes for tabs.
The Baron Fig may be my favorite notebook I’ve ever used. If I’m at my desk, it’s at my desk. I’ve taken it with me on many trips this year — traveling to WWDC in San Francisco; a family vacation to Colorado in August; Portland for XOXO; Baton Rouge, Louisiana. And it’s been to just about every (good) coffee shop in the greater Kansas City area.
As may be evident with my aforementioned collection of mint-condition Field Notes, I often self-sabotage my own notebook usage. A brand new notebook is too nice to be used. Paper is so full of character. It’s tactile. Real. Fragile. Permanent and impermanent at the same time. It just begs to be used for something awesome. And I never feel that my silly ideas and temporary to-do lists qualify. But if not those, then what?
My Baron Fig and I made a pact. I would use it for the most mundane, menial, impermanent things I could think of. And if I ruined this book by filling it with nothing of consequence, then I would order another to sit on the shelf and collect dust as it waited patiently for something more historic and epic.
But the truth is, when it comes to using our everyday notebooks, quality is found in quantity; meaning in the mundane.
As I thumb through the pages of my spent Baron Fig, the early pages reveal tasks both accomplished and unacomplished. The very first to-do item is a reminder to buy a screen protector for my then-new Olympus E-M10 (something I never did get around to doing until many months later). A few pages further I find my review notes for the Flickr iPhone app which came out in March.
Further in I continue to find scattered notes, ideas, and sketches for the big update to Delight is in the Details that I shipped a few months ago. I also find outlines for reviews I was working on and have since published, notes for the book I’m writing now, budgeting math, and more.
Since I started this notebook, my wife and I celebrated our 9-year anniversary as well as each of our birthdays; my youngest son turned one; a huge re-design to Tools & Toys was concieved, built, and launched; and I wrote and shipped a significant update to my book, Delight is in the Details.
The two biggest trends found in my notebook are regarding my daily tasks and my podcasts. I often write down the talking points and outlines for my Shawn Today and The Weekly Briefly podcasts. And the vast majority of pages are filled with my daily action items and schedule.
According to my own handwriting, it was on May 6 that I adopted a much more analog approach to my tasks and routine. It was then that I began writing down my “big three” projects for the day along with any additional admin tasks, and then scheduling time for those things to get done during the day. For most days from May until October I did this. I would sit down with OmniFocus on my iPad and I would review through the items which were due, and I’d transfer things out of OmniFocus and in to my Baron Fig.
I’ve slowly moved away from this routine over the past month or so since I re-vamped my usage of OmniFocus to make better use of due dates and flags. However, there is something awesome about having 255 days worth of crossed-off to-do items, notes, and the like. And the fear of losing this ability to flip back through the pages is one thing that keeps me tethered to the analog.
As interesting as all of the text in this notebook is, aside from what’s written down on the most recent 8 or 9 pages, I’m not sure if anything is still needed. My Baron Fig is has 192 some odd pages of nothing in particular. And yet, in aggregate, it’s everything. In here are the footprints of my life from the Spring to the Fall of 2014.
Comparing the old notebook to the new one, I am impressed with how well it has worn. There are a few scuffs and stains on the old cover, but it’s not dramatic.
As I open up my new notebook, the binding cracks and stretches. It’s now ready to get to work. This new one will probably see me through to next summer, sometime around my 34th birthday. What will be done between now and then?
Waking up this morning turned out to be a little bit like Christmas. At long last, VSCO Cam has a native iPad app.
Ever since I upgraded to the Olympus E-M10 earlier this year, the iPhone’s VSCO Cam app has become an excellent way to edit my photos when I’m traveling. It’s not exactly ideal compared to importing a batch of images onto my Mac and editing them in Lightroom. But for sharing one or two images here and there, it’s great.
For the past year, VSCO Cam has been the “missing” iPad app for me. When I travel, I often take just my iPad as my “main PC”. And I’ve always wished there was a way to use VSCO to edit my images on the iPad instead of on my phone. I think the VSCO photo filters are second to none. I use them in Lightroom on my Mac, and I have the VSCO Cam app on my iPhone’s first Home screen. Aside from my lenses and my own eye, VSCO is one of the most important aspects to my photography workflow and style.
All that said, I’ve written below some of my first impressions of the new VSCO Cam app for iPad and what’s good and bad about the app.
Also, I bought one of Apple’s Lighting to SD Card readers so I could directly import my photos to the iPad instead of using my Camera’s wi-fi connection. I’ll explain the process of each, but in short, the latter is quick and easy for one or two images at a time, while the former is better when importing many photos to the iPad.
The E-M10’s Wi-Fi connection and the Olympus iOS App
Though not exactly cumbersome, neither is it delightful to import more than just a few images to the iPad using the Olympus Wi-Fi connection and the Olympus iOS app. The process looks like this:
- Turn on Wi-Fi on the Olympus E-M10
- Launch the iPad Settings app and join the Olympus’ Wi-Fi network
- Open the Olympus Share app
- Chose to import photos
- Browse the photo viewer to find a photo you want to import
- Tap on that photo
- Wait for the photo to load
- Tap the “Share” Icon and chose to save to Camera Roll
- Once the photo has been saved to the Camera Roll, the Olympus app asks you if you want to turn off the camera. Tap no if you want to keep importing more photos.
- Go back to the photo viewing gallery and repeat steps 5-9 for each photo you want to ad.
- When you’re done, the photos you’ve imported will be in the Camera Roll as well as an album called “Olympus”.
I’ve been using this process on my iPhone since February of this year. It works great for weekend trips and times that I just want to import and share a few photos before I get back to my Mac.
Moreover, I’m grateful the E-M10 has Wi-Fi because the Lightning to SD Card dongle doesn’t work with the iPhone (no, really). And so the Olympus importing workflow is the only way to get photos directly from my camera onto my iPhone.
Long have I wished for an iPad-centric workflow. For one, the larger screen of the iPad far better suited to photo editing. Moreover, for extended trips, I’ve always wanted to be able to edit a dozen or more photographs and then send them out to the relevant friends and family. But importing them one at a time and then editing them on my iPhone just never felt appealing.
But, now there is VSCO Cam for the iPad. Combined with the Lighting to SD Card Camera Reader, my wish may have been granted. Is it all I ever hoped for? I don’t know — I’ll find out at Christmas when I go back to Colorado for the holidays and leave my Mac behind. But in the meantime, here are my first impressions of using the adapter to import photos and using VSCO Cam on the iPad to edit them. This is how I spent my afternoon.
How the Lightning to SD Card Reader works
Unsurprisingly simple, but not exactly quick.
- When you plug in the adapter with an SD card in it, the Photos app instantly launches and you are taken to the Import tab.
- The iPad then loads up all the images that on the card so you can preview their thumbnails. This took my iPad mini literally almost one second per photo. So, if you’ve got hundreds of images on the card, it will take several minutes before the Import tab is ready to go.
- You can then tap on any of the photos you want to save to your iPad, and those thumbnails will get marked with a little blue checkmark circle.
- The Import button is dangerously close to the Delete button, be careful when you are ready to import your selection.
- You can then chose to import all the photos on the card, or just import the ones you’ve selected.
- Once imported, you get the option of deleting those images from the SD card, which is nice. But I’ll keep them for now, thanks.
Something else I like about importing to the iPad from the SD Card reader is that iOS remembers which photos I’ve imported already. And so, if I’m importing just a few images now, next time I go to import photos from that same card, I won’t be forgetful about which ones I already brought in.
However, there are two things I don’t like about this process.
- It loads the images from oldest to newest. So if you plug in the SD card to import a few images you just took, you have to wait for the whole card full of images to load before you can select the most recent images.
- You can’t enlarge the images to view them in full-screen before importing — you have to import them based on the merit of their thumbnail view alone.
Once imported, the photos get saved in the default Camera Roll and photo stream albums. From there you launch the VSCO Cam app, and add them to your VSCO Cam Library at which point you can edit them on the iPad. Wouldn’t it be great if the VSCO Cam app could see the SD Card and I could add directly to my VSCO Library? Ah well
VSCO Cam for iPad
The VSCO Cam app for iPad is great. Just like the iPhone app, VSCO on the iPad is free and the filters it comes with out of the box are fantastic. And the design of the app makes it feel like a first-class citizen on the iPad, as it should.
The layout of the iPad interface is different than the iPhone’s. The filter selection and editing tools are on the left and right sides, instead of on the bottom. Holding the iPad in landscape orientation with both hands is the best way. This way you can operate the app somewhat like a game — using your thumbs to navigate the controls on both the left and right sides as you move around the app, editing images, uploading them, etc.
With this update, your VSCO Cam Library now syncs across devices. You can tell if a photo is synced by the double-circle icon in an image’s top right corner.
And, not only do the images themselves sync, so too do the edits you’ve made. But! Not only do the edited images sync, it’s the non-destructive edits. Meaning, you can edit an image on your iPad, save it, sync it, open it up on the iPhone, and revert it back to the original version. Slick.
There are, however, a few things I’d love to see added to the app:
Right now, there is no way to apply the same edits to a batch of photos. Not only does the larger screen of the iPad make it more friendly to editing photos, it also makes it more of a go-to device for editing a lot of photos. The way I edit in Lightroom is that when I’ve got a batch of images all from the same event, I edit one to get just right and then I synchronize those edits to the group of photos. It’d be awesome to have that same functionality in VSCO Cam.
And, curiously, there is not yet a share extension for iOS 8. This is unfortunate. It means you can’t make VSCO edits to your photos without first importing them into the VSCO Cam Library. In my link to VSCO Cam this morning, I commented on the lack of the share extension saying that who knows if the omission of the share extension is due to technical hurdles or if it’s a philosophical move.
The VSCO Cam app is much more than just a photo editing app — it’s an entire photo platform. It’s clear that VSCO Cam wants to be your one-stop shop for all your mobile photography needs: from the camera, to the photo library, to the best editing software, to their own Instagram-esque publishing platform (Grid), and their own photo-centric blogging platform (Journal). What’s awesome is that VSCO Cam does all of these things with aplomb. Their in-app camera is excellent, their Library is easy to navigate and it syncs seamlessly, their editing tools are second to none, and their Grid and Journal platforms are polished and well used. But not everyone wants to use all of these tools. Some folks just want to snap a photo from their iPhone’s Lock screen, apply a one-tap filter, and then share it on Facebook. It would be unfortunate if VSCO Cam was holding back on their implementation of an iOS Extension for political and philosophical reason.
However, considering the fact VSCO Cam was highlighted during the iOS 8 introduction at WWDC, something tells me their missing extension share sheet is due to a technical hurdle, and eventually it’ll make its way out.
* * *
All in all, I’m so glad to have a native VSCO Cam app for my iPad. Though it’s not a life-changing revolution to my photography workflow, it certainly is something I’ll be using.
And now it has me curious if we’ll see VSCO Cam for Mac some day. I mean, we know that VSCO’s bread and butter is their Lightroom presets. Why not roll those presets into a stand-alone Mac app that they sell? And now that they’ve got the Library syncing, it’d be a piece of cake for the photos you take on your iPhone and/or iPad to sync to the VSCO Cam app on the Mac.
It wasn’t until a few weeks ago that I realized I’ve been using OmniFocus all wrong ever since the Forecast View came to the Mac.
The Forecast View is awesome. But it’s not where your daily to-do list should live.
I don’t know about you, but if I look at my to-do list, it is mostly things which I want to do today. Only one or two (at best) are things which actually have a hard and fast due date of today and need to be done.
By living in the Forecast View, I’ve slowly developed the habit of setting the items which I want to get done as being due today. Or, if I know I can’t get to it today then I’ll set it to be due tomorrow or the next day. Seems natural and logical when your in the middle of it, but it’s actually not the best way to go about things.
My usage of Due dates and the Forecast View mirror Chris Bowler’s exactly. In his weekly members-only newsletter, Chris recently wrote:
I was a heavy user of due dates, but the reality was these dates were fictitious. It was more a case of when I’d like this task to be done or worked on. This could be a problem as some tasks truly were due on a specific day, but they would be mixed in with other tasks in the Forecast view that were more wishful thinking than anything else.
I was able to get by with this usage for a couple of years. My habit was to simply push out the due dates when things got crazy and desired tasks did not get done when I had hoped.
Same here. Fortunately, Chris pointed me to Sven Fechner’s excellent OmniFocus Perspectives Redux series, which is helping set me straight with a much more logical — and honestly, a much less stressful — way of managing my daily task list.
- Introduction & Planning
- Project Centric Doing
- See also Tim Stringer’s article on why it’s important to use due dates sparingly.
(If you’re using Due Dates for juggling your “things I want to get done today” list, then I highly recommend you read the above four articles in the order I’ve listed them.)
In short, you should create your own custom perspective for “Today”. And let that list show you all the tasks which are either Due today or which are Flagged. When you are doing your daily review and scrubbing your list, don’t think about what’s due — because it should already be given a proper due date — instead, just flag the tasks you want to get done that day. Then, go to your Today perspective and now you’ve got a list of items which are both urgent (i.e. due today) and important (i.e. flagged).
Another cool thing about using this Today perspective is that you can pull it out into its own window and “Minimalize” it by hiding the left and right sidebars and hiding the toolbar. And you end up with nothing but a list of your task list for the day.
I use an OmniFocus-only Keyboard Maestro macro to opens the Today perspective in its own window, automatically hides the sidebar, toolbar, and inspector, and then resizes the window to be 475px wide and 600px tall.
Two notes about using the Today perspective like this: (1) You need the Pro version of OmniFocus 2 in order to create custom perspectives; and (2) in the setup window for that perspective you’ll want to have it open in a new window, so that the changes to window size and hiding the sidebar, et al. don’t mess up your Main OmniFocus window.
* * *
It’s the stuff like this that I love about OmniFocus. It really is the best GTD app out there. I’ve been using it every day of my life since early 2010 and I’m still learning and improving on it. Not to mention the brilliant and clever community of folks who use OmniFocus and share their knowledge with the rest of the world.
Up next for me is to get a better handle on using Contexts and Project Folder hierarchy so that when I am doing “work” work, I only see those tasks, and when I am doing “peronal” work I only see those tasks. But, one step at a time, Shawn.
For the past 3 months I’ve been working on my next book. It’s called The Power of a Focused Life and is all about things like life goals, time management, work-life balance, creativity, the tyranny of the urgent, focus, and more.
Over the past several months, most of the episodes of my members-only podcast, Shawn Today, have been about the topics and ideas I’m writing and researching for the book.
I just recently finished the crappy first draft, and it’s around 16,000 words. I wanted to start by getting everything written down that I had in me — the first draft is just me straight-up writing down the things I know and the things I do regarding these topics. It’s a great start, but there is a lot more ground I want to cover.
And so now I’ve begun the second phase of writing, which involves intentional research. I’m now reading articles, books, and teaching series from others so I can find out what I’m missing and add more content to my second draft of the book.
All that to say, I recently read an article and book about identifying and changing habits.
It got me thinking about one of my own worst habits: checking Twitter.
One of the reasons I wear a watch is to help keep me from pulling my phone out as often as I would. If I want to check the time I look at my watch. Because as soon as I’m holding my phone, it’s instinct at this point to swipe-to-unlock the thing. And then, once the phone is unlocked and I’m staring blankly at my Home screen of icons, I’m going to want to launch an app. But because I unlocked the phone without any clear plan for what I needed to do, the next thing I know I’m checking Twitter. And all the while, I don’t even know what time it is. See? It’s a bad habit.
There are three components that make up a habit: Trigger → Response → Reward.
The keys to changing a habit are to start by figuring out what the reward is — what is it that you’re seeking to gain by carrying out the habit action? Then, learn what the trigger is so that you can head it off at the pass or prepare for it. Finally, you insert a new, healthy action as the trigger response instead of your bad action.
Now, let’s just assume that compulsive checking of Twitter, Facebook, and email are bad habits. And by that I mean they are habits we want to change. I know I personally would like to check Twitter less often. (Have I ever gained anything by checking Twitter while standing in line at the grocery store or while waiting at a red light?)
For me, here’s what my Twitter checking habit loop looks like:
Trigger: I have down time; I’m bored; I’m waiting for something or someone. Common times this occurs are when I’m standing in line somewhere, when a commercial break comes on during a football game, when I’m waiting for water to boil, etc.
Response: Pull out my iPhone, launch Twitter, and just scroll through tweets.
Reward: Pacify my boredom and/or get a short-term gain of social interaction because someone @replied to me or whatever.
What I need is a new action to do when I have down time.
Of course, it’s important to mention that there is nothing wrong with being bored. In fact, those little moments of mental down time can do wonders for our long-term ability to create, problem solve, and do great work.
For the times I do want to use my iPhone when I’m waiting in line at the grocery store, I’ve come up with a few alternatives instead of just checking Twitter.
These are a few alternatives to the Just Checks:
Scroll through your Day One timeline and read a previous journal entry or browse some old photos and memories.
Launch Day One and log how you’ve spent your time so far for the day. Doing this for a few weeks can also be super helpful for getting a perspective of where your time and energy are being spent.
Write down 3 new ideas. These could be articles you want to write, business ideas, places you want to visit or photograph, topics you want to research, date ideas for you and your spouse, gift ideas for a friend, etc. These ideas never have to to be acted on — the point isn’t to generate a to-do list, but rather to exercise your mind. Ideation and creativity are muscles, and the more we exercise them the stronger they get.
Send a text message to a friend or family member to tell them how awesome they are.
Don’t get out your phone at all.
These alternatives are meant to be healthy. Meaning they have a positive long-term effect and satisfy the same reward as before. The point here is to not default into the passive consumption of content (it’s so easy to do that anyway). If you’ve got any ideas of your own, let me know on Twitter.
Take advantage of those down time moments and allow our minds to rest for a bit or else engage our minds by doing something active and positive.
My review of the new Retina iMac could be said as one word: sensational.
I once read that a man buys something for two reasons: a good reason and the real reason. I bought a Retina iMac for a very good reason: my primary computer — an aging MacBook Air — was due for an upgrade. But the real reason? It’s a 27-inch Retina monitor and it is astonishing.
Of course, it wasn’t entirely an easy decision to make. For as long as I’ve owned my own computer I’ve loved laptops. I love that I can close the lid, put the computer in my bag, and take my main work machine with me anywhere I want. There’s no syncing between two machines, or wondering if this or that file is on the computer or not, and no compromises when I’m on the road.
And so the choice to get the Retina iMac was also a choice to give up my perceived sense of freedom and portability that comes with having a laptop as your one and only computer. And honestly, it’s turned out to be not a big deal.
Over the past few years since I began writing here as my full-time job, a few things have changed regarding my work habits. For one, I work here at this desk in my home for about 80-percent of my hours. There were a few months at the beginning of this year when I was commuting to a local co-working space, but that didn’t quite stick for me (but that’s a story for another day and it’s underpinned by my hope that WELD will one day come to Kansas City).
Secondly, when I do travel to a conference or drive to a local coffee shop for the day, I mostly prefer to take my iPad. The work I do revolves around reading, writing, and communicating with my team. All of which are things I can do quite easily from my iPad thanks to apps such as Instapaper, Drafts, Poster, Unread, Editorial, Slack, Mail, Basecamp, OmniFocus, Safari, and Pushpin.
All that said, leading up to Apple’s special event I knew I’d be upgrading my MacBook Air. The question was, to what would I be upgrading?
Plan A was a 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro and a Thunderbolt Display. The new computer to replace my old Air and the new Display to replace this grey market IPS display as a stop-gap while I waited held my breath for an updated Thunderbolt display (if there’s one thing I’ve learned in the past decade of being an Apple user it’s to not hold my breath waiting for updated external displays).
But there was a rumored iMac with Retina display that was throwing a wrench in my upgrade plan.
And as I thought about my various upgrade options — either stay a laptop-plus-external display user, or switch to become a desktop user — I thought about how I mostly work. And realized that the vast majority of my computer working time is spent at my desk. I’ve been mostly using my Air in clamshell mode practically since I bought it in 2011.
And here at my desk, it’s more than just the computer that I have going on. I use a standing desk, a clicky keyboard, and gigabit internet. There are many incentives (comforts, really) that make my home office workstation comfortable, efficient, and preferable. Honestly, I like it here.
And so I decided that I was willing to double down on my home-office setup and that my next main Mac would become a desktop machine if it meant I could get a Retina display.
Welp, that’s exactly what happened. Apple announced the new iMac with its Retina 5K Display, and I ordered one right away.
Built to Order
I’ve been a Mac user since early 2005 when I bought a 12-inch PowerBook G4 so I could learn Photoshop. And if the last decade is any indication, I use my computers for almost exactly 3.5 years. And so I try to get the highest-specced version of a machine that I can afford so as to prolong its usefulness.
Graphics and Processors
When ordering my iMac I went all out. It has the upgraded processor (4 Ghz Quad-Core Intel Core i7), the upgraded graphics card (AMD Radeon R9 M295X 4GB GDDR5), the 1TB SSD, and 32GB RAM (via OWC’s upgrade kit). In short, I kinda ordered the absolute top-of-the-line iMac. But it’s worth it, and here’s why.
The step up CPU and GPU were an easy choice. It’s $500 extra for both, but considering this is a bleeding edge machine with a bazillion pixels to push, it seemed prudent to get the better graphics card and processor in order to handle the screen. My personal computing needs consist mostly of open browser tabs and text documents — hardly the sort of work that demands the top-of-the-line iMac’s outrageous horsepower. But my gut tells me the iMac’s 14.7 million pixels will appreciate the octane, and I’d rather be safe than sorry.
Jason Snell received a baseline review unit of the Retina iMac from Apple. And in his review he encounter occasional graphic stuttering:
In my use of the stock system, graphics performance was generally fine, though if I opened a whole lot of windows and spaces and then invoked Mission Control, I could definitely see pauses and stuttering. I have no idea how much of that is the fault of the system hardware, and how much is the fault of the software.
I’ve got 18 applications with 22 windows open at the moment, and when I invoke Mission Control it’s about 98% smooth as butter. Meaning, if I’m looking for pauses and stutters, I can kinda notice one, but then it’s gone the next time. And every other graphic animation — scrolling, moving windows around, resizing, minimizing, maximizing — looks perfect (save Time Machine, which I’ll get to in a bit).
David Pierce reports of there being some tearing during fast-paced graphics games, even on his high-end review model. In my usage over the past week I haven’t seen any tearing, but I also don’t play any games on my iMac.
Upgrading the RAM was another easy choice. There’s a little plate in the back of the Mac that pops out and it’s a piece of cake to add new memory yourself. It took me about 5 minutes. And OWC has a page set up with recommended upgrade options.
The iMac ships with 8GB of ram as 2 sticks of 4GB. The most reasonable upgrade is to simply add two more 4GB sticks to get a total of 16GB. You can get this from OWC for $100. I decided to go all out and upgrade to 32GB of RAM because we all know Safari will drink that RAM up like liquid gold once she’s got more than a few open browser tabs. I hear extra memory is also helpful when working in Lightroom.
Solid State Storage
And as for the storage. Well, I went with the 1TB SSD for the sake of minimalism. Seriously.
I went with the SSD instead of a Fusion Drive because I’m not a huge fan of the latter. I’m sure they’re great, but I’d rather stick with pure solid state.
What blows my mind about the Solid State Drive is the Read/Write speeds I’m seeing. My very first SSD was an OWC Mercury Extreme Pro that I put into my aluminum MacBook Pro back in 2010. At the time it had a read/write speed of 134 and 109 MB/s respectively. And when the SSD in my MacBook Air was brand new its read/write speeds were 265 and 248 MB/s respectively.
As you can see from the screenshot above, the SSD in my iMac reads at 688 MB/s and writes at 705 MB/s. (!) That’s really fast.
Compared to the baseline Retina iMac that Engadget reviewed, which included a Fusion Drive, my write read speeds are about the same but my write speed is more than double that of the Fusion drive.
The reason I went with 1TB is because a bigger capacity hard drive makes life so much easier. It means I don’t have to juggle with storage, wonder which drive a certain folder is on, nor worry about if I have room to import a card full of photographs.
I could get by with a 512GB drive because right now, all my data takes up about 400GB. But since taking up photography two years ago, it has become a very serious hobby, and I’m taking more pictures now than I was 2 years ago. And so the reason I wanted the biggest drive is so I wouldn’t have to start playing file storage musical chairs again in just a year from now.
Having a larger internal drive that can hold all of my files, also makes backups easier. With my MacBook Air, I had to offload most of my photographs and media to my Synology and then access those over the network. Not exactly a huge deal, but definitely a bit complex and also it meant I had two drives each with their own unique and priceless files on them.
Therefore I had two drives which each needed their own local backup and their own offsite backup. The Synology is pretty awesome in this regard. It runs in RAID and thus internally has its own redundancy. Additionally, it can automatically back itself up to a local USB drive (just in case the Synology unit itself ever gets fried), and it can back itself up to Amazon Glacier or Google Drive (among other options). But the only thing better than having all my files available on an awesome network attached storage drive is having all my files on my main computer.
Not to mention, even with NAS-grade hard drives and a gigabit network connection, I’m still only getting read/write speeds that are a fraction of those I’m seeing on my iMac’s internal drive.
Now that all my files are on the iMac, I have just one local and one off-site backup to manage. I use SuperDuper and an external Western Digital drive for nightly clone, and I have a Time Machine partition on my Synology.
Now that I’m no longer using the Synology as a media hub, its can be, and should be, so much more than a Time Machine destination. I’m going to do some research into using it as a VPN as well as possibly sync my Documents folder to the Synology because the iOS app for remote access to files is great (too bad there is nothing like that for accessing files on my Mac from my iOS device through Back to my Mac).
The creative professional has long been one of Apple’s primary user demographics. And it used to be that if you were doing serious work, you bought a Mac Pro. But over the years, not only has the iMac line gotten more and more powerful, so too has the MacBook Pro line. In fact, over the past several years, many a creative professional has become a “laptop primary” person. Myself (previously) included.
Anyone who deals with graphics and images and videos is always looking for fast and powerful. Naturally, it’s fun to have a computer that boots up faster than you can pour a cup of coffee. But it’s also practical to have such a beast. A more powerful machine means less time waiting for videos to render, apps to build, and photos to export. And that genuinely makes life better for a lot of us.
And that’s why its so wild that the high-end Retina iMac is faster than the entry-level Mac Pro in some cases. This is not your mom’s iMac.
And yet, despite what an amazing workhorse this computer is, you don’t buy it for the power. You buy it for the screen. For the first time in desktop computing history, the speed and power of this machine is not the primary story or selling point. Rather, it’s all about the display.
And what a display it is. What I’m discovering is that the wonder of a Retina display is directly proportional to its size.
The more I use and learn about this iMac, the more I’m amazed with it. It’s a ridiculously powerful computer underpinning a jaw-dropping display. Put those two things together and you get something truly special. I know you know this.
Now, I’m someone who rarely does any graphic design, nor do I shoot or edit any video in 4K, and I’m a hobby photographer at best. What do I need a Retina computer for?
I work with words all day long, and text is perhaps one of Retina’s primary beneficiaries. We’ve been saying this since the iPhone 4 came out in 2010, but it has yet to cease to amaze me: type on a Retina screen is sharp, crisp, and print like. And on a 27-inch monitor, it’s all better. Especially when this is the screen I am in front of for the vast majority of my work day. Yes, I have my iPhone with me all the time, but I spend exponentially more time in front of my computer than my phone.
The most marketable use-case scenarios for the Retina iMac are for video and photography professionals. But if you deal with text and words as your primary vocation — i.e. writing, programming, editing, layout design, etc. — I think you’ve just as much reason to get a Retina Mac as those professional video editors and photographers do.
As a writer by trade, part of me wants to argue that wordsmiths have even more of a legitimate reason to go Retina than those working with images and graphics. But, then I open up Lightroom to process some of my recent photography and I’m blown away at just how stunning my pictures look. So I guess we all have equal grounds.
Setting up the new iMac
It was a week ago this morning that FedEx delivered my iMac. I get a new computer so rarely, that when I’m setting it up I use it as a chance to start fresh.
Instead of using Migration Assistant to port over all the apps and settings and preferences from my MacBook Air, I simply set up the iMac with the clean install from the factory and only added files and apps as I needed them.
While things are certainly a bit more tedious this way — especially the first day of setup — I like having the chance to once again pick and choose which apps I install. It lets me start with only what I actually use on a regular basis.
Dropbox and iCloud Keychain make things surprisingly easy in this regard.
Most of my apps that have any sort of syncing engine (1Password, OmniFocus, TextExpander) are up and running just as I left them on the MacBook Air. Others, such as Keyboard Maestro, Transmit, and Hazel, I had to export my settings out of those apps on the Air and then import them into those apps on the iMac.
This is one area where the Mac App Store shines. Installing a dozen or more apps from the MAS is as simple as scrolling down the list of purchases and clicking “Install”. For those apps I own which I didn’t purchase through the MAS I needed to go to the respective website, download the free trial, launch the app, and then dig up and enter in my license info for that app.
After syncing my Dropbox folder I then just copied over all the files in my Air’s Documents folder, all the music and photos from my Synology. And while that was running, the apps I installed right away were Dropbox, LaunchBar, TextExpander, and 1Password. After those I installed Byword, MarsEdit, Reeder 2, OmniFocus, Rdio, Coda 2, Transmit, Bartender, Hazel, Backblaze, Lightroom, Day One, Fantastical, iBank, Droplr, Simplenote, and Tweetbot. But not in that order.
On my Air there are 216 items in the Applications folder. On my Mac, there are currently just 66. Feels good.
Aside about 2-Factor Authentication
I have 2-factor authentication enabled on pretty much any service that offers it. This was the first time I’ve gone through a complete ground-up setup where all my logins were guarded by verification codes. To my surprise and delight, it was surprisingly painless — and even encouraging — to use all the 2-factor authentications I have set up.
Lightroom on the Retina iMac
As mentioned above, my photography hobby has been the biggest bane to my MacBook Air. Both in terms of storage space and processor capabilities. As explained earlier, the guts of my iMac have obliterated my two biggest pain points with photography. The new computer (a) has plenty of storage space to hold all the photographs I’ve taken over the past 2 years with room to spare for the next few years’ of photos; and (b) has the processing power to work much more quickly in Lightroom.
Beyond the fact that it’s a better computer for doing photo editing, it is a vastly superior screen. My Olympus shoots RAW images at 4608×3456 pixels. It’s bigger than 4K video, and quite a bit taller as well. So I can’t fit 100% of my image onto the screen while working in Lightroom, I can however view it at 50% pixel-for-pixel resolution and it looks so nice.
Time Machine Oddities
Looking at the photograph above (click here for full size), you can see some lines and odd graphics where there should be smooth graphics and gradient shadows. I asked around on Twitter, and several other folks are seeing the same thing with Time Machine on Yosemite, and, from what I can tell, it’s pretty much only an issue on Macs with Retina displays. Which includes not only the new Retina iMac, but also the Retina MacBook Pros.
However, if I take a screenshot of what you see above, then the screenshot doesn’t capture any of the graphics oddities. It looks just fine.
Something else with Time Machine is that the timestamp for the current file / folder in view renders blurry, like an image at non-retina scale:
One concern some folks have had about the Retina iMac is how loud the fan will be. My experience pretty much mirrors exactly that of Jason Snell:
I notice when I’m recording a podcast and my MacBook Air’s fans are loudly blowing because some runaway app is using way too much processor power. When I ran stress-testing processor and GPU-based tests on the iMac, the fan would definitely come on, and in a quiet room it was audible. It was also, to my mind, vastly quieter than the fan in my MacBook Air. The iMac’s not going to match the Mac Pro for quiet fan blowing, but neither is it going to beat out any Mac laptops in a contest to see who can make the most noise.
I can’t remember the last time my MacBook Air’s fans weren’t running at full speed and volume. And while my iMac certainly does have an audible fan at times, even at its “loudest” it’s nearly unnoticeable except when my office is completely silent.
A few Yosemite hacks
This terminal command to get the dark-themed Dock while keeping the light themed Menu Bar sets you up to have the best of both worlds.
Last week, Ian Hines asked me how apps and websites hold up in on the Retina screen. The fortunate answer is that they hold up extremely well.
This iMac is not the first web-connected Retina device, nor is it the first Retina Mac. And so, at this point, the vast majority of websites and Mac apps have been updated to look great on a Retina screen.
While I do encounter some blurry bits on occasion, they are few and far between. The only downside I can think of with this computer is that it cannot run as a standalone monitor.
When I’m standing here, using the iMac, I keep thinking about how it’s all about the screen. But what’s crazy is that the screen is only half the story. Inside this iMac just so happens to be one of the fastest Macintosh computers on the planet. Take away the Retina display and you’ve still got an incredible machine. But you don’t have to take away the display. With the Retina iMac you’ve got your cake and you’re eating it, too.
From all I’ve read about this iMac, combined with all I’ve experienced, this is the real deal. There is no disadvantage to being an early adopter here and there is no major tradeoff. I am so happy this computer exists. This is the dream. This is Retina Desktop Without Compromise. And it is wonderful.
Let’s take stock for a moment of a few really awesome new gadgets that are currently on the market. Specifically the new iPhones, iPads, and Kindle.
iPhones 6: For all intents and purposes, the newest iPhones are the best iPhones ever made. They are ridiculously thin, have an incredible camera, and are wildly fast. I’m personally a huge fan of the new curved-edge design; the way the glass screen curves off the edge like a 4-sided infinity swimming pool is awesome. Not to mention the super-high-density of the iPhone 6 Plus’s display — it’s the highest resolution display Apple makes.
iPad Air 2 and iPad mini 3: The iPad Air 2 is hands down the best tablet ever made. It’s curiously thin and seriously fast. The iPad mini 3 improves on last year’s iPad mini by adding Touch ID and a gold option.
The Kindle Voyage: The new flagship Kindle is also the best Kindle ever made. And it’s not just an incremental upgrade over last year’s Paperwhite — it’s an excellent step up in terms of the design, hardware, and e-ink display.
If you’re in the market for a new iPhone, iPad, and/or Kindle — this is a great year to buy. Each device is the best its ever been. But…
Despte the fact that there are all these new and amazing gadgets, I think it’s legitimately safe to say that many folks will prefer the tech that was new last year. And, in many cases, there are some people who would be better served by getting last year’s gadgets.
iPhone 6 or 5?
You may not want one of the new iPhones because the smaller form factor of the iPhone 5s is better to you. It will work with the Apple Watch when it ships and since the iPhone 5s has Touch ID, it will also support Apple Pay via the Apple Watch.
iPad mini 3 or 2?
You may not want the new iPad mini 3 because its only significant difference over the iPad mini 2 is Touch ID. As nice as Touch ID is, I don’t think it’s nearly as critical to have on an iPad as it is on an iPhone. That extra cost would be better spent on apps which will improve the utility of your iPad far more than Touch ID will.
Kindle Voyage or Paperwhite?
On the new Kindle Voyage, I think the 300 ppi display may be the least exciting upgrade when compared to the Kindle Paperwhite. Yes, the lighting is better, the form factor is better, and the page turn “buttons” are a most-welcomed addition. But I personally cannot tell a significant difference between the 212 ppi display of the Kindle Paperwhite and the 300 ppi display of the Kindle Voyage.
I don’t mean this as a put down to the Kindle Voyage at all. Mine arrived yesterday and I’m thrilled with it. But, it is one of those situations where it’s not an obvious choice. The Kindle Paperwhite is still a really great Kindle, and the $80 saved when compare to the Voyage may be better spent on Kindle books.
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All this to say, I think it’s a fascinating product lineup this year — there are some truly amazing and wonderful products available. But for the first time in recent memory, it’s not a completely obvious choice to just buy the latest version. Last year’s gadgets may not only be the better choice from a financial standpoint, but also as a personal preference as well.
Over the weekend I made some time to catch up on some reading I’ve been looking forward to. I’m a few issues behind in my Offscreen magazine subscription, and I just recently received the first issue of Lagom magazine.
These magazines are just fantastic. Offscreen has always focused primarily on the people behind the pixels. It’s mostly comprised of interviews, profiles, a-day-in-the-life-ofs, original essays, and more. All featuring the folks who many of us know from online.
Magazine seems an unfair category. For one, the quality of paper and printing is superb — it feels more like an extended, special edition comic book than something you’d find on the shelf at Barns & Noble. The advertising is classy and simple — never breaking up an article. And the content itself is meant to endure just as the quality of the paper speaks to the non-disposable nature of Offscreen.
I’ve been reading Offscreen since issue 1 (I was a contributor to issue 2), and the quality has so clearly increased.
This past weekend I made time to read through most of issues 7 and 8 of Offscreen and thoroughly enjoyed them. Issue 7 especially, it had an underlying focus on business and time management — two topics which are at the top of my mind lately.
What’s cool about Offscreen is that it’s filled with the sorts of articles and interviews that you’d almost certainly be filling your Instapaper queue with, except it’s expertly laid out on a printed page with full-color photographs. For a nerd like me who enjoys this type of content anyway, I love the different and experience of reading it in print. Moreover, when I’m done, I can pass off the magazine to a friend and let them borrow it for a while.
And speaking of magazines, the inaugural issue of Lagom is now out and wow. I’ve long been a fan of Elliot Jay Stocks’ work. I bought every issue of 8 Faces, I have a copy of Insites: The Book, I bought the first (and last) edition of Digest, and now I’m a subscriber to Lagom.
Note: you can get the digital versions of Insites and Digest for free on the Viewport Industries home page.
Over the years, Elliot has clearly become a master at editing together a printed work and doing the design and layout. If you like Offscreen, you’ll also like Lagom. It, too, has a focus on the people of our creative industry, but with its own unique voice and style.
Elliot’s past work — especially Digest — served as a great point of inspiration for our recent re-launch of the Tools & Toys website.
As a physical object, Lagom is commanding. The book is large and thick, printed on hearty stock with a foil-embossed logo on the cover. Lagom is equal parts entertainment, information, and inspiration. I honestly don’t know what’s better — the content, the design and typography, or the photography.
Let’s talk about tools, services, and apps that can help you reduce cognitive friction during your day.
Computers are great at doing the boring, automated stuff we don’t like to do. So why not automate common tasks (like performing backups of your computer), pre-make decisions for your computer to carry out on your behalf (such as auto-filing certain email newsletters), and generally just find ways to make yourself more efficient?
I think the biggest reason we don’t do these things is because we don’t care. Seriously. In the moment, it seems easier to just continue suffering through our broken and inefficient workflows that it does to take a step back and consider if there’s a better way.
You could spend an extra 5 minutes every day for the rest of your life sorting through the spam and newsletters in your email inbox, or you could take 15 minutes today and tell your computer to do it for you.
I think another reason we don’t set stuff like this up is because we don’t even know what options are available to us. And so that’s why I’ve put together this brief list of all the apps, tools, and services I use to help me do things better when I’m at my Mac.
Email Rules: In an ideal world, the only emails that would show up in your inbox are the ones you want to read. Email is not the enemy, but it sure can get unwieldy in a hurry.
Step one is, of course, to unsubscribe from all the incoming email newsletters you don’t want to get. I am subscribed to some email newsletters because I like what they have to say; some of these emails I keep out of my inbox and auto-file them into my “Bacon” folder. I also have rules set up to flag certain emails that contain the word “sponsorship” or “typo”. And I use VIP sparingly — my accountant and my wife send me an email, it will set off a push notification on my iPhone.
Keyboard Maestro: This is a utility app for bending your Mac to your will. It’s hard to explain what KM does because it can do just about anything. I use it to launch certain apps with just a keyboard shortcut; I use it to streamline the exporting of my podcast audio out of Garage Band; I use it for doing bottom-posting email replies when appropriate; I use it to automatically launch the Doxie importing software and to import all my document scans as soon as I’ve plugged my Doxie Go into my Mac; and more. Basically, what Keyboard Maestro is good at is automating certain certain tasks for you
Hazel: Hazel is like the cousin to Keyboard Maestro. While also great at automating tasks, it works under slightly differently contexts. Hazel works with the files on your computer, and mostly runs under the hood. You can have it do things like automatically clean up all the files on your Desktop at the end of the day and move them into a “Desktop Cleanup” folder. Hazel will notice if you delete and app and then ask if you also want to clean up all the system files related to that app. Hazel can automatically take any new images you’ve added to Lightroom to your NAS drive and copy them onto your NAS drive for backup and archival purposes. And more.
LaunchBar: The whole point of an application launcher is to quickly get to the files and apps you frequently access on your computer. You bring up LaunchBar with a keyboard shortcut, type in the first few letters of an app, bookmark, or file that you want and LaunchBar presents a list of the best results sorted by most-likely-what-you-want.
As you use it, LaunchBar learns your most common searches and provides weighted results. There’s a lot you can do with LaunchBar, custom searches, zipping and emailing files, and more. I wrote a whole review about the latest version here.
TextExpander: Surely everyone reading this knows about this utility app which runs in the background on your Mac to expand snippets of text into sentences, words, dates, and whatever else you can imagine. It makes a great tool for quickly punching out common things you type on a regular basis (such as common email replies, email signatures, misspelt words, etc.) For example, I use the snippet
;hometo automatically insert my home mailing address. (A tip about using the semicolon before the word: that helps guarantee that the snippet isn’t something I would type in any normal situation.)
1Password: Another app I hope you’re familiar with. Yes, 1Password is great for storing all the various logins and other sensitive bits of information. But it’s also a very efficient tool. When I need to log into something, insert my Credit Card info, or whatever, a quick keystroke to bring up the 1Password quick entry window and I’m off to the races.
Fantastical: Fantastical is an awesome calendar app. And one of the things I like most about it is how quickly accessible it is (since it lives in the Menu Bar, a keyboard shortcut brings up the app instantly and I can see the list of my agenda). But I also like the natural language parsing. When it comes to events and appointments, we all just naturally speak in sentences. And so, having a calendar app that interprets that language so well makes it much easier to enter in new events (and reminders).
Time Machine: I can’t stress how important it is to have regular backups of my computer. And Time Machine takes all the thought out of it by automatically backing up my computer to an external hard drive several times per day.
SuperDuper: I also like to have a bootable backup of my computer. And I use SuperDuper to do this every night. And there’s an option in SuperDuper that will automatically launch the app and begin a smart update backup as soon as I plug in my USB drive. So that means, when my computer’s apps are all closed out and I’m ready to do the nightly backup, all I do is plug in the USB drive.
Maximum internal storage: One thing I’ve learned about computers is that there is never enough internal storage space. I would rather spend my time taking photos and listening to music than shuffling files around. And so I always get as much internal storage as I can so hopefully I don’t have to keep fighting that ceiling.
BreakTime: A simple app that reminds me to move around every 45 minutes.
Timing: A utility app that tracks how I spend my time when on my computer. Hindsight is 20/20 you know?
iBank 5: This financial management app has auto-import rules that properly re-name and assign transactions when I’m importing them from my bank. It also has income/expense reports, budgeting, and more. I know that any banking software worth its salt will have this, but I use iBank because I think it’s the best. I do all my own bookkeeping, and having as much of the busywork automated by my software helps me so I only need to spend less than 5 hours per month doing my books. (iBank also becomes extremely handy come tax season.)
Tweetbot: I use lists when I need a quieter timeline and I use some muting rules so I don’t see certain tweets that I’m not interested in (such as those “whatever daily is out!” announcement tweets).
Things I need to improve at
For the sake of transparency, I want to be clear that I am not Mac Zen Master. My desk isn’t always free of clutter (it’s usually not), and there are many areas of work that I know I can improve on.
Such as my podcasting workflow. I record a podcast almost every single day, and it takes me time every day to save, export, master, and publish it. The routine is almost the same every day, but I haven’t found a way to speed up that process now that I use Auphonic for mastering the audio after I’ve exported out of Garage Band.
I also recognize that one of the greatest ways to work smarter isn’t by using a “hack”, but by simply getting better at focusing and seeing a task through to the end.
I know there are places I can get better at focusing and at improving my own habits. Such as not checking Twitter as often as I do. Or improving my habits for processing incoming emails. Even my task management habits need help. (Don’t tell anyone, but I often find myself playing the “due date game” with my tasks instead of properly assigning due dates based on actual urgency and then reviewing all my projects on a regular basis.)
It can be easy to get hyper nerdy about this stuff, and to spend forever and a day tinkering and fiddling and “optimizing”. I listed out the above things not to say that you should be utilizing them as well, but instead to give you an idea of perhaps one or two ways that you could work smarter.
It just boils down to being mindful about the work we are doing. When we notice that there’s something we do repeatedly, step back for a moment to see if there’s a way to automate that task. And if there is something we do that annoys us, step back for a moment and question if that task is truly necessary — or if it can be delegated to someone or something.
The holidays must be approaching. The air outside is getting cooler, Starbucks probably has some new drink with fall-flavored syrup, new iPhones are about to ship, and new Kindles have just been announced.
The new Kindle Voyage looks awesome. It’s Amazon’s new, top-of-the-line Kindle device. The Paperwhite from last year is still available and has remain unchanged except it now has more internal storage. And the bottom-of-the-line Kindle now has a touch screen.
Three years ago I bought a Kindle Touch when it first came out and instantly fell in love with both the hardware and the ecosystem. One year later, I upgraded to the Paperwhite because I do most of my Kindle reading in the evening and having an illuminated display was a no-brainer.
Today’s new Voyage is a significant step up from the Paperwhite. It’s thinner, it weighs less, and it also has some great new hardware features which improve on the three areas I have most wished for improvement in my Paperwhite.
The Voyage has a higher resolution display. The Paperwhite’s 212 PPI display is great, but 300 PPI is better. That’s equivalent to print resolution.
Better lighting. I have a first-generation Paperwhite, and the lighting is uneven at best. In my review from two years ago I wrote:
By far, my biggest complaint against the Kindle Paperwhite is with the way the lights illuminate the bottom of the screen. Underneath the bottom bezel of my Kindle are four LED lights, shining upwards to light up the screen. Yet they shine like spotlights, and it’s not until about 3/4 of an inch up the screen that their light beams blend into one another and you get a soft, even lighting.
This is common. All the Paperwhites have it and nobody likes it. The darker your reading environment, the more pronounced the uneven lighten is. It’s unfortunate for sure, but it is what it is and by no means is it a deal breaker.
The 2nd generation Paperwhite improved on this with a more (though not completely) uniform lighting. And though Amazon doesn’t say anything about the actual lighting (the display is still lit by a few LEDs along the bottom), but the new Voyager does have a sensor that auto brightens / dims the lighting based on the ambient light in the room. And so, the lighting is probably not yet perfect, but the best it’s ever been.
In the two years which have passed since I wrote the above, my “biggest complaint” has changed. It’s no longer the lighting, it’s the lack of a hardware page turn button. The way the Kindle Paperwhite works is that you tap on the screen itself to turn the page. The problem with this is that if you are reading with one hand — it’s quite easy to hold the Kindle with one hand, and so it’s common to be reading with one hand — it’s not easy to roll your thumb over onto the screen to turn the page. It’s even worse if you’re holding the Kindle with your left hand, because the left-side margin is where you tap to go back a page, not forward.
Turning the page is arguably the single most common interaction you will perform with the Kindle, and it’s just not super great on the Paperwhite.
The new Kindle Voyage is now the only Kindle with a dedicated button for turning pages. They call it a “PagePress” button and it’s a pressure-based turn sensor with haptic feedback that (should) make it easier to turn the pages when holding the Kindle with one hand.
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If you’re someone who enjoys reading, the Kindle is a delightful device.
I stare at lit-up computer screens almost all day long. And though I could read my Kindle books from my iPad mini, having a paper-like e-ink screen and a single-purpose little lightweight gadget is a most welcomed change of pace in my day.
But that’s not all. Dedicated hardware aside, there is another huge advantage to reading Kindle books over iBooks. And that is the Kindle Highlights library.
Log in to kindle.amazon.com/your_highlights and there you will find all of your highlights and notes from all the books you’ve read. This is, by far, one of my favorite features of the Kindle ecosystem.
I mostly read nonfiction books, and I highlight stuff like crazy. These highlights are how I revisit and rediscover the books I’ve read.
Additionally, when I’m browsing on the Amazon Kindle store and see a book I’m interested in, I don’t buy it right away. Instead I send the sample to my Kindle, and my Kindle’s Home screen doubles as both my library and my queue.
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The Voyage is the flagship Kindle for a reason. It has refined and improved on all the “shortcomings” of the Paperwhite. However, if $200 bucks is more than you want to spend on a Kindle, then get the Paperwhite. Unless you really just want the cheapest possible Kindle, I would not recommend you get the new (plain) Kindle. I owned a Kindle Touch when they first came out, and though it was pretty great, paying an extra $40 is well worth it for having a higher-resolution, illuminated screen.
As for with or without 3G — only you can answer that question, but I bet you don’t need it. There are a lot of places where having LTE on your iPad is handy, but how many places do you really need cellular connectivity for your Kindle? For me, it’d only be when I’m going on a camping trip where I’ll be without wi-fi. But it’s easy enough to make sure my Kindle is in sync before I walk out the door, and it’s not like I’m going to plow through my entire queue of unread Kindle books over a weekend outdoors. And even if I did, my iPhone doubles as a wi-fi hot spot, so if I desperately needed to connect my Kindle to the internet then I could just do so via my iPhone.
And as for with or without Special Offers, get your Kindle with them and you can always pay the extra $20 later to turn them off. I’ve had them displayed on mine since 2011 and they kinda bug me but not that much. There’s no point in paying the $20 extra now when you can just as easily pay it later.
And so, if you decide to get a Kindle, do me a favor and use one of these links. I’ll get a small kickback from Amazon which helps me keep the lights on here. Thanks.